Two British men, including a former soldier, are believed to have travelled to Syria to fight alongside Kurdish forces battling Islamic State militants. Both have been labelled as "mercenaries," but a purported spokesman for the pair claimed Monday the men have not received any money.
Former infantryman James Hughes from Reading, England and a friend, Jamie Read, a Scot, are reported to have joined the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) defending the northern Syrian border town of Kobane, which has been the subject of a major Islamic State offensive since September. The lightly armed YPG are backed by American-led airstrikes and Peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan.
A number of recent reports called the men "mercenaries," but Graham Penrose, who claims to be a spokesman for the two, said in a statement Monday that the pair were motivated by a desire to help the region's beleaguered Kurds and other minority groups, and denied that they had received payment.
"James Hughes and Jamie Read and their colleagues are good men," the statement reads. "They are normal everyday people who are doing an extraordinary thing. They have decided that will not do nothing while innocent Kurdish men, women and children, Yazidis, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and regional minorities of all kinds are tortured and murdered by Islamic State [sic]."
Hughes's Facebook profile says he served with the British army from January 2009 to January 2014 and had completed three tours in Afghanistan.
Read's Facebook page, which has now been removed, said that he trained with the French army, according to The Observer.
Both men appear to have joined up with Jordan Matson, a 28-year-old American from Wisconsin who is connected with the "Lions of Rojava," a YPG group recruiting foreign fighters opposed to the Islamic State. In Kurdish, Rojava translates to "the West," signaling that the group, whose stated mission is to "send terrorists to hell and save humanity," is operating in Western (Syrian) Kurdistan.
Matson confirmed this weekend that he was with Hughes and Read, The Observer reported.
The battle for Kobane could now see British citizens fighting against each other. Around 500 Britons are estimated to have have travelled from the UK to join forces with the Sunni Islamist militant group. A number of those are believed to have been killed while attempting to seize control of the strategically-important town close to the Turkish border.
Other Westerners have also joined Kurds fighting against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, including European biker gangs and a 31-year-old Canadian woman, Gill Rosenberg.
Taking up arms in a foreign conflict could be an offense under British law, but Prime Minister David Cameron has said that that those fighting against the Islamic State would not be treated in the same way as those who had joined it.
Former commander of the British armored division, the Desert Rats, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Parker, told The Times that he thought Hughes and Read could well have the best of intentions.
"I think it is eminently possible that people could be doing it out of a sense of right and wrong, because soldiers fundamentally do have a sense of right and wrong and they actually fight for it," he said. "If they believe… that the Kurdish people are being oppressed and not particularly supported, they will volunteer their skills."
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