Kurdish fighters and allied Syrian rebels consolidated their control Tuesday of a strategic Syrian border town whose capture dealt the militants of the Islamic State a major blow by cutting a key supply route.
The fight for Tal Abyad, just south of the Turkish border, had set off a chaotic refugee exodus earlier this week, but that deluge slowed to a trickle Tuesday. At midday, officials at the adjacent Turkish border crossing said new arrivals numbered in the scores, rather than the thousands who broke through a border fence close to the crossing on Sunday.
Under a blazing sun, stragglers could be seen limping along a fenced passageway and presenting themselves to Turkish authorities at the border facility at Akcakale, the Turkish town just across the frontier from Tal Abyad. Many were elderly men or women, carrying possessions in bundles atop their head. Little boys led littler ones by the hand.
Those fleeing the fighting told of being trapped between battle lines, terrorized by shelling. Some had been waiting for days on the Syrian side before managing to make their way across. One old woman, asked about the crossing, shook her head wordlessly, tears streaming down her face.
Tal Abyad, a town of about 80,000 people before fighting began in earnest earlier this month, is a significant prize for Kurdish-led forces, who have been backed by airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-led military coalition confronting Islamic State.
But the victory by Kurdish fighters and their allies has raised the hackles of Turkey, which is rattled by the growing bloc of Kurdish-held territory on its doorstep. The fighting also exacerbated ethnic tensions among the town’s residents, who are divided about equally between Arabs and Kurds.
Turkey is already home to nearly 2 million Syrians, and the latest influx triggered by the fight for Tal Abyad set off warnings that the refugee population was reaching insupportable levels.
After closing in from three sides, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, claimed late Monday to have gained control over most of the town, which had been in Islamic State hands for more than a year. Monitoring groups said that by dawn, the last of the Islamic State fighters appeared to have either crossed into Turkey, where some were arrested, or made their way back toward Raqaa, the capital of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq.
On Tuesday, Kurdish fighters cleared land mines and booby traps laid in buildings and vehicles throughout the town by Islamic State defenders, activists reported, saying it could be weeks before the town is fit for habitation. Black flags bearing Islamic State’s white insignia were replaced by the YPG’s yellow emblems.
The Akcakale crossing had been a key smuggling point for Islamic State, allowing for the passage of weapons and fighters toward Raqaa, 50 miles to the south, as well as export of black-market oil shipments. But there are many other paths across the long border, and Islamic State still controls the Syrian side of a crossing at Jarabulus, in Aleppo province to the west.
The loss of Tal Abyad marks an unaccustomed setback for Islamic State, whose fighters last month overran Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq, and the ancient ruins at Palmyra, in central Syria.
In towns and cities under the group’s sway, the militants have slaughtered or sexually enslaved members of religious and ethnic minorities. The group has also imposed a harsh brand of Islam, demanding that women fully cover themselves and leave home only in the company of a male relative.
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