Islamic State militants have reportedly abducted at least 150 Assyrian Christians from their homes in northeastern Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, first reported Monday that 90 Assyrians were abducted from the villages of Tal Shamiram and Tal Hermz in the Al-Hasakah province, a diverse corner of Syria that borders Turkey and Iraq.
The number of people reported missing climbed Tuesday. Swedish-Assyrian journalist Nuri Kino, founder of "A Demand for Action," an organization that campaigns for the protection of ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East, told VICE News that 90 men had been taken captive and moved to a nearby mountain, and that 70 women and children remained in Tal Shamiram, where they are also being held hostage.
According to Reuters, a Syrian Christian group that represents several NGO's inside and outside the country confirmed Tuesday that at least 150 men, women, and elderly people are missing in Al-Hasakah.
"We have verified at least 150 people who have been adducted from sources on the ground," Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, reportedly said.
Ethnic Assyrians — a Christian minority group whose members speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the primary language of Jesus and his disciples — are indigenous to Syria and Iraq. Around 1 million Assyrians lived in Syria before the conflict began in 2011, but their numbers have dwindled to roughly 400,000 as many fled amid violence and persecution.
According to Kino, who said that he is in constant contact with local militias and civilians who have fled the attacks, both Syrian and Kurdish forces were attempting to retake Tal Shamiram, though information on how the operations are proceeding is scarce. A Syrian soldier told Kino that while the army had managed to retake two of the villages, they believed the Islamic State fighters had called for "hundreds" of reinforcements from Raqqa. "What happened to the abducted men we don't know yet, there are so many rumors," Kino added.
Mardean Isaac, a British-Assyrian writer who also works with "A Demand for Action," told VICE News that the initial raids occurred Monday between 5 and 6am local time.
The attacks targeted villages along the Khabur River in northeast Syria, he said. During one attack, the women and children were separated from the men, who were taken by militants to the nearby Abd al-Aziz mountains. "We think 90 to 100 Assyrian men are being held hostage by the Islamic State and they are demanding the release of Islamic State prisoners in exchange for the release of these Assyrians," Isaac said.
It was a typical Islamic State operation, Isaac noted, "in the sense that it was basically a terror operation. They came early, they ransacked the village — everybody fled."
Isaac estimated that 400 families managed to escape, seeking refuge in the city of Hassakah, while another 100 managed to get transport to Qamishli, a city on the Turkish border. Around 3,000 people total have been displaced, he said.
In a video posted Monday on Facebook, a woman speaks about surviving the attacks. Sitting with three children, she says, "We fell asleep in total quiet, nothing was going on… We woke up to the sound of clashing, we didn't know what it was, until we saw that everyone in the camp was fleeing because ISIS had entered the village.
"We heard that in Tel Shamiram, they had seized the women and taken them up to the mountain — and they did the same thing in Tal Jazeereh. We tried calling them; there was no response. They went into Tel Hormuz and killed people there; even young men. We didn't understand what had happened, fully, but there was so much fear in our hearts that we didn't even know how to escape… even old men and women were fleeing. All the roads were closed: there wasn't a single car."
Eventually, she says in the footage, people from Qamishli came to rescue them. "The men remained and ushered the women and children, and they still remain there, fighting."
VICE News could not independently verify the contents of the video.
The villages in Al-Hasakah "are uneasily poised between the Islamic State and the Kurdish 'cantons,' which are semi-autonomous regions established by left-wing Kurdish groups," Isaac explained.
Isaac cited sources as saying that Islamic State militants recently killed two young Assyrian men whom they described as "crusaders," and said were being punished for "siding with the Kurds." The Islamic State has readily murdered members of minority groups that fail to conform to their radical brand of Islam.
"The Assyrian people have a history of resistance which is centuries old," Isaac said. "When confronted with ISIS your choices are genocide or genocide, so if you arm yourself badly that can be a problem, and the situation then of course is scattershot and uncertain — there's no strategy going on; it's a guerrilla situation."
Isaac said his relatives in Syria are at risk of losing their culture because of constant conflict and threats. "The tragedy for us is that we keep losing our land, we keep losing our homes, and we have no control over our destiny," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported Monday that 14 Islamic State fighters were killed by US-led airstrikes in a region close to Tal Hamis. Bombs dropped on the village of Salima by Kurdish peshmerga forces reportedly killed eight civilians, including five children.
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