Number of Assyrians Abducted by ISIS Rises to 220: Monitor

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A child walks past trucks loaded with mattresses and blankets at a Syrian government's temporary housing center that houses displaced Syrian families who fled the violence in the Eastern Ghouta region on February 23, 2015 in Qudsaya, west of the capital Damascus. AFP/Louai Beshara

Published Thursday, February 26, 2015

Updated at 2:15 pm (GMT+ 2): Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have abducted at least 220 people from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria during a three day offensive, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday, updating earlier numbers.

"No fewer than 220 Assyrian citizens (of Syria) were abducted by ISIS over the past three days from 11 villages" in Hasaka province, the Observatory reported, adding "negotiations are under way through mediators from Arab tribes and a member of the Assyrian community to secure the release of the hostages."

The abductions took place when ISIS took 10 villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority near Hasaka, a city mainly held by the Kurds, over the past three days.

Nearly 1,000 families have fled villages in the northeastern province of Hasakeh since Monday's kidnappings, according to the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network.

About 800 of them have taken refuge in the city of Hasaka and 150 in Qamishli, a Kurdish city on the Turkish border, the group said, adding that the number of displaced people came to about 5,000.

Most of the hostages were women, children or elderly.

"ISIS now controls ten Christian villages," Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said by phone. "They have taken the people they kidnapped away from the villages and into their territory," he added.

ISIS has not claimed any of the abductions.

Since ISIS emerged in its current form in 2013, it has captured large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq.

It has declared an Islamic "caliphate" in territory under its control, and gained a reputation for brutality, including executions and torture.

The extremist group has systematically targeted religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. It has destroyed churches and Christian shrines in Syria, and demanded that Christians living under its rule pay a tax known as jizya.

The group last week released a video showing its members beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

ISIS also persecutes Sunni Muslims who do not swear allegiance to its self-declared "caliphate" or follow its Salafi ideology.

The United States and United Nations condemned the mass abduction — the first of its kind in the war-torn country — and demanded the release of the hostages.

"This is but the latest round of atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against the innocent people of the region," the White House said in a statement, using another acronym for ISIS.

"ISIL's latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The UN Security Council also condemned the abductions, demanding the hostages be immediately and unconditionally released.

Osama Edward, director of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, said he believed the abductions were linked to the jihadists' recent loss of territory.

Kurdish forces successfully advanced Wednesday against ISIS in parts of the northeast near the Iraqi border, an area of vital importance to the group as one of the bridges between land it controls in Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish fighters recaptured three Assyrian villages and a nearby Arab village.

"The (Kurdish) People's Protection Units (YPG) have reclaimed Tal Shamiran, Tal Masri, Tal Hermel and Ghbeish," Abdel-Rahman said.

But fighting continues in the area, he added.

In Tal Shamiran, the jihadists burned down part of a church.

And in the Arab village of Ghbeish, ISIS decapitated four men, and burned down houses and a school. They accused the villagers of "collaborating" with the Kurdish fighters.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG last month drove ISIS from the Syrian town of Kobane. Since then further signs of strain have been seen in the group's ranks.

"They took the hostages to use them as human shields," Edward told AFP.

The jihadists, who are battling Kurdish fighters on the ground, may try to exchange the Assyrians for ISIS prisoners, he added.

Their aim was to take the Assyrian Christian village of Tal Tamer, near a bridge that links Syria to Iraq, he said.

Edward, a native of an area of Hasaka province home to 35 Assyrian villages, said the jihadists broke into houses at night as people slept.
The hostages were then taken to Shaddadi, an ISIS provincial stronghold.

The jihadists had been intimidating the villagers for weeks, he said, including threatening to remove crosses from their churches.

"People were expecting an attack, but they thought that either the Syrian army, which is just 30 kilometers (18 miles) from there, or the Kurds or the (US-led) coalition's strikes would protect them," Edward said.

The Syrian army, however, has been waging a separate campaign against ISIS, making significant advances against the group in Hasaka in recent weeks.

The Assyrians, from one of the world's oldest Christian communities, have been under increasing threat since ISIS captured large parts of Syria.

There were 30,000 Assyrians in Syria before the country's civil war erupted in 2011. At that point Syria had an estimated Christian population of about 1.2 million.

US-Iran’s “mutual interest”

Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and Iran had a "mutual interest" in defeating ISIS but said the long-time foes were not cooperating to do so.

"They are totally opposed to ISIL and they are in fact taking on and fighting and eliminating ISIL members along the Iraqi border near Iran and have serious concerns about what that would do to the region," Kerry told lawmakers.

"So we have at least a mutual interest, if not a cooperative effort," Kerry added.

Kerry, who has been pivotal to Washington's drive to strike a deal to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, said the United States had not asked Tehran to get involved in the fight against ISIS.

Washington has shunned the idea of partnering with the Damascus government, seeing President Bashar al-Assad as part of the problem, while Iran maintains its full support to the embattled leader.

Recent reports are suggesting that some European Union countries which withdrew their ambassadors from Syria are saying privately it is time for more communication with Damascus.

Those states have become more vocal in internal meetings about the need to talk to the Syrian government and have a presence in the capital.

In France, some government and opposition lawmakers have begun to criticize Paris's stance, as have former officials and some diplomats in private.

The report preceded a private trip on Wednesday by four french lawmakers to Damascus, where they met Assad, despite a breakdown in diplomatic ties between Paris and Damascus.

The four MPs and senators, who hail from both the left and the right, belong to the France-Syria parliamentary friendship groups.

One of the MPs, a member of President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialist Party (PS), faces possible ejection from the party, its chairman said on Thursday.

"I fully condemn (this visit). Assad is not an authoritarian dictator, he is a butcher," Socialist Party Chairman Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said, reflecting French accusations his forces have committed atrocities during a four-year conflict.

"I have written to Gerard Bapt, I will summon him and take sanctions," he told RTL radio, noting that it would be up to the party's disciplinary committee to determine whether that would involve a possible ejection from the party.

Three of the parliamentarians in the delegation met Assad for talks on Wednesday, however Bapt told Reuters by text message that he did not personally take part in that meeting.

"We met Bashar al-Assad for a good hour. It went very well," Jacques Myard, an MP from the opposition UMP party, told AFP.

He described the trip as "a personal mission to see what is going on, to hear, listen."

Myard refused to reveal the content of the talks. Syrian state television said they had discussed "the state of Syrian-French relations, as well as the developments in the Arab world and Europe, especially with regard to terrorism."

The French delegation also met People’s Assembly Speaker Mohammed Jihad Laham and talked about strengthening relations and joint interests.

A meeting with Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign and Expatriates Minister Walid al-Moallem also took place, in which Moallem discussed the need for united efforts to counter terrorism which constitute a threat in Syria and internationally, the state-run news agency SANA reported.

The French delegation visited the Charles de Gaulle School in the al-Mazzeh area of Damascus where they met its administrative staff, and the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross mission in Damascus, meeting with the head of the mission Marianne Gasser.

Bapt, who led the delegation, said on France Inter on Thursday that the visit was made in the hope of promoting a ceasefire.

"One does not have the sense, in Syria, of seeing a government that is about to fall," Bapt said. "If there is to be peace, we have to find a way to talk to each other."

The possible sanction for Bapt underlines sensitivities surrounding France's policy of shunning Assad.

The trip was not approved by the French parliament's foreign affairs committee, and the Foreign Ministry said it did not support the mission.

Shortly after Bapt spoke to the press, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned the visit, saying it was an "ethical transgression."

"I want to condemn this initiative with the greatest strength," Valls told TV station BFMTV.

"For parliamentarians to go without warning to meet a butcher.... I think it was a moral failing."

French President Francois Hollande also condemned the visit.

"I condemn this initiative. I condemn it because it is a meeting between French lawmakers who have taken it upon themselves to meet with a dictator who is the cause of one of the worst civil wars of recent years," Hollande told reporters in the Philippines.

Despite the Syrian government’s call for international cooperation to fight jihadist militancy, Britain, France and the US remain opposed to contacts with Assad, aiming to train so-called moderate rebels to fight both the regime and jihadist groups.

On Wednesday, the White House's special envoy for the campaign against the ISIS said “moderate” Syrian fighters are stepping forward to battle ISIS militants in greater numbers than US officials had expected.

"The numbers are much higher than we thought, and it's been a very encouraging. We've had an encouraging sense that there is an interest in this," retired General John Allen, President Barack Obama's envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, told a US Senate committee.

Turkey signed a deal with the United States on February 19 to train and equip thousands of Syrian rebels, in a latest bid by the NATO allies in backing opposition forces in Syria.

The US government hopes the program can begin by late March, so the first trained rebel forces can be operational by year's end, according to the Pentagon.

Their goal is to train more than 5,000 Syrian rebels in the first year of the program and a total of 15,000 over a three-year period. The training will reportedly take place in the Turkish town of Kirsehir in central Anatolia.

According to Damascus and Kurdish PKK leaders, Turkey, a NATO member and Washington's key ally in the region, has been playing a major role in fueling the armed crisis in Syria by opening its borders and allowing free access to foreign jihadists into Syria.

Allen testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as lawmakers began considering Obama's request for a formal three-year authorization for the campaign against ISIS.

The measure is expected to face difficulty in Congress, where many Democrats worry it will lead to another long engagement by US combat troops in the Middle East and Republicans are concerned it does not give commanders enough flexibility to defeat ISIS.

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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