The Islamic State militants struck before dawn, staging house-to-house raids in a cluster of villages nestled along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria. They abducted at least 70 Christians — many of them women and children — while thousands of others fled to safer areas.
The captives’ fate was unclear Tuesday, a day after they were seized, and relatives said mobile phone service was cut off and land lines also were not going through, adding to the fear and uncertainty about their loved ones. Heavy fighting was reported in the area.
The Islamic State group has a history of killing captives, including foreign journalists, Syrian soldiers and Kurdish militiamen. Most recently, militants in Libya affiliated with the extremist group released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians.
The group’s bloody campaign in Syria and Iraq, where it seeks to form a self-styled caliphate, has repeatedly targeted religious minorities since it took control of a third of both countries. The United States and coalition of regional partners are conducting a campaign of airstrikes against the group.
The militants struck near the town of Tal Tamr in Hassakeh province, an area predominated by Assyrian Christians. Most of the captives came from Tal Shamiram and some from Tal Hurmiz.
Nuri Kino, the head of a group called A Demand For Action, said between 70 and 100 Assyrians were taken captive. About 3,000 people fled and have sought refuge in the cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli, he said, adding that his activist group based its information on conversations with villagers who fled the attack and their relatives. His group focuses on religious minorities in the Middle East.
“Have they been slaughtered? Are they still alive? We’re searching for any news,” said an Assyrian Christian woman from Tal Shamiram who now lives in Beirut. The woman said she has been trying to find out what has become of her parents, her brother and his wife and their children, but couldn’t reach anyone in the village.
“I feel so helpless, I cannot do anything for them but pray,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of endangering relatives believed to be held by the militants.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which also reported the abductions, put the number of Christians held by the Islamic State group at 90. The Observatory relies on a network of activists inside Syria.
Both groups said that most of the captives come from Tal Shamiram, located some 85 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the provincial capital of Qamishli, and nearby Tal Hurmiz. At least four civilians, including a 17-year-old, were killed in clashes later Monday, a relative of one of the victims said on condition of anonymity.
The extremists could use the Assyrian captives to try to arrange a prisoner swap with the Kurdish militias it is battling in northeastern Syria.
Last year, IS militants abducted more than 150 Kurdish boys and held them in a school in Aleppo province where they subjected them to daily instruction on militant ideology for five months before releasing them in batches. The group has also released Turkish truck drivers and diplomats after holding them for months. It was not known whether a prisoner deal was struck in those instances.
The report complied information from Associated Press.
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