Syria refugees return to border town after IS defeat

Akçakale (Turkey) (AFP) – Syrian refugees in Turkey began returning to their homes in Tal Abyad Wednesday after Kurdish forces seized the border town in a major blow to the Islamic State group.

Some 400 men, women and children carrying their meagre possessions crossed back into Syria through the Turkish border post of Akcakale, a day after Kurdish fighters backed by Syrian rebels took Tal Abyad.

The fight for the town prompted some 23,000 people to flee into Turkey, and the first returnees said Wednesday they were eager to get back home.

“I’m returning. I left my husband there. But I’m still very afraid of the bombs, how would someone not be afraid of bombs?” said Fahriye, a 40-year-old housewife.

“I’m also afraid of IS coming back,” she said.

“I’ll go and decide with my family whether we’ll stay or not.”

Mahmud, a farmer, said he too was eager to return home ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday.

“It’s not so good here… It’s not like home,” he told AFP.

“We want to spend our holy Ramadan in our homeland. We have been looking forward to it.”

Fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian rebel forces declared full control over Tal Abyad Tuesday, less than a week after they began an advance on the jihadist-held town.

– Key blow to IS –

Analysts said their capture of Tal Abyad, aided by US-led air strikes, was the most significant defeat for IS in Syria so far.

The town was a key conduit for foreign fighters and supplies into IS-held territory in Syria and for exports of black market oil from jihadist-held fields.

The loss cuts a key IS supply line to the jihadists’ de facto Syrian capital of Raqa.

IS will now have to rely on border crossings much further west in neighbouring Aleppo province, adding several hundred kilometres (nearly 200 miles) to their supply lines.

The group still holds the Syrian side of the Jarablus crossing in Aleppo, which is closed on the Turkish side, and it has other informal border routes, but none that rival Tal Abyad.

Inside the town Wednesday, life was beginning to return, said Sherfan Darwish, a spokesman for the Burkan al-Furat rebel group that fought alongside the YPG.

“Military operations have finished. Tal Abyad’s civilians are returning,” he told AFP.

“The local bakery in Tal Abyad was not functioning, so yesterday we restarted operations and we’re distributing bread to the residents who are coming back.”

He said Kurdish and rebel forces had carried out sweeps of the town to remove mines and car bombs left behind by IS jihadists.

“We’re doing everything we can and providing security to the best of our abilities.”

Darwish said similar sweeps were being conducted in recently captured villages near Tal Abyad, with villagers being asked to leave while searches were done.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said YPG and rebel forces had asked residents of 10 villages in the area to do so.

The orders come amid accusations by some Syrian rebel groups and Turkey that Kurdish forces are seeking to “ethnically cleanse” Tal Abyad and the surrounding region of Arabs and Turkmen.

The YPG and their Arab rebel allies dismiss the allegations, and Darwish said villagers were being asked to leave for “an hour or two… just enough so we can search the villages.”

– UN envoy condemns civilian deaths –

Meanwhile, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura ended a three-day visit to Damascus where he held talks with government officials. including President Bashar al-Assad.

He criticized both the government and opposition forces for civilian deaths.

The envoy issued a “strong condemnation” of government fire on the town of Douma outside Damascus Tuesday afternoon, which a monitor said killed at least 24 people.

He similarly criticized rebels for rocket fire on the government-held portion of Aleppo Monday, killing 34 people, and on central Damascus Tuesday, when nine people died.

De Mistura is holding ongoing consultations with parties to the more than four-year conflict in a bid to find a political solution to the war.

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