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Tens of Thousands Displaced As Rebels Battle Islamic State In Northern Syria

Tens of thousands are now trapped by the closed border with Turkey, with some reporting being fired on by Turkish border guards while attempting to flee into the neighboring country.

by VICE News
Apr 15 2016, 4:02pm

Syrians gather at the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey on February 6, 2016. Photo by Bunyamin Aygun/AP

Fighting between Islamic State (IS) militants and opposition fighters in northern Syria has displaced more than 30,000 people in just two days, with some of those reporting being fired upon by Turkish border guards when attempting to cross into the neighboring country.

Turkish and US-backed rebels launched an attempt to seize a strategic stretch of territory close to the Turkish frontier from IS earlier this month, meeting with early success. But the jihadist group fought back, regaining lost ground and even temporarily overrunning some of the ten displaced persons camps in the area, which were home to as many as 60,000 people.

At least half that number have now fled, either to other camps or the nearby town of Azaz, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report yesterday, adding that some groups of people who had approached the border had been turned away by Turkish soldiers firing live ammunition at their feet. Other camp residents close to the fighting who were unable to escape had begun digging holes to protect themselves and at least one was injured by gunfire, HRW said

Gerry Simpson, an HRW senior researcher and advocate who is currently working on the Turkish/Syrian border told VICE News on Friday afternoon that he had spoken to a number of the 5,000 or so displaced people who had made it to the camp on the Syrian side of Azaz's Bab-Al Salam crossing into Turkey. Many are now trapped, he said, scared to return for fear of IS, but now living under open skies or packed into tiny tents along with many others. Food and water supplies were so low, meanwhile, that some had begun digging holes to look for ground water.

Related: Turkey Is Shooting Refugees and Illegally Sending People Back to Syria, Say Rights Groups

The border remains shut, and humanitarian organizations have not yet been able to cross into Syria in order to distribute aid. Turkey, which is already home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees has allowed only the most seriously ill or injured to enter for at least a year, and as of earlier this month had constructed 186 miles of a planned 559 mile long rocket-resistant concrete wall along its border with the conflict-stricken country. Instead of letting people in, Ankara favors the construction of a "safe zone" just inside Syria where displaced civilians can find refuge.

"Over the past 48 hours, IS has overrun displaced camps in Turkey's so-called "safe zone" — which is nothing like safe — pushing tens of thousands of people into areas where displaced people have already been struggling to receive adequate aid," Simpson said. "Keeping the borders shut is exposing people both to the insecurities of fast shifting frontlines and the elements, as well as the problems of insufficient food, water, sanitation and shelter."

The IS-occupied border area currently being fought over allows it bring in both men and supplies from Turkey. As a result, it's a key priority for the US-led coalition's pans to surround IS's self-proclaimed Syrian capital of Raqqa.

The rebel coalition quickly took the town of al-Rai with the help of US air support and Turkish artillery, but was then driven back out by IS in an embarrassing defeat. Pro-IS social media channels subsequently showed off weaponry and ammunition said to be captured from the rebels.

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