As the US marks a year since its first airstrikes against ISIS, the Islamic terror group advanced towards a Syrian town, causing hundreds of Christians to flee.
Hundreds of Christian families have fled a central Syrian town as Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists advance toward it, activists said Saturday. The dramatic news came on the anniversary of the the first US airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.
A US-led coalition has conducted nearly 6,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State terror group, expanding its operations to target the terrorists in Syria as well. But a year later, ISIS remains capable of launching attacks across its self-declared “caliphate” in both countries, despite some gains by Kurdish fighters and allied Iraqi forces.
Meanwhile, searches continued in Egypt for a missing Croatian hostage that an ISIS affiliate had threatened to execute.
On Saturday, Osama Edward, director of the Christian Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria, said “hundreds of families” have fled the Christian town of Sadad toward the government-held central city of Homs and the capital, Damascus.
Syria-based activist Bebars al-Talawy said intense clashes took place Saturday near the central town of Qaryatain, which ISIS captured on Thursday. Qaryatain is about 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of Sadad.
Qaryatain lies in the middle of a triangle formed by the cities of Homs, Palmyra and Damascus. Activists say it has a mixed population of around 40,000 Sunni Muslims and Christians, as well as thousands of internally displaced people who earlier fled Homs.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Saturday’s fighting concentrated in an area between Qaryatain and the village of Mheen, which is halfway to Sadad. The Observatory said Syrian troops shelled the area and government warplanes conducted several airstrikes on areas outside Qaryatain.
Sadad was captured briefly in 2013 by members of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and was retaken later by government forces.
“People are living in fear in the area,” Edward said, adding that many Christians around Sadad fear that what happened to ethnic Yazidis in Iraq and other Christians in ISIS-controlled territory could happen to them: Being forced to choose between fleeing, converting to Islam or facing death. The threat to Yazidis in Iraq prompted US President Barack Obama to begin airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq on August 8, 2014.
Activists said the Islamic State terror group abducted 230 residents, including dozens of Christians, from Qaryatain in recent days. They added that some Christians were released, though the fate of the others is still unknown.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million people.
In February, Islamic State terrorists kidnapped more than 220 Assyrian Christians after overrunning several farming communities on the southern bank of the Khabur River in the northeastern province of Hassakeh. Since then, only a few have been released, and the fate of the others remains unknown.
In northern Syria, Nusra Front members left their positions on the border with Turkey in Aleppo province and were replaced by members of the Shamia Front, or Levant Front, which is a coalition of several insurgent groups, according to SOHR. The reason for their move wasn’t clear, though that area is where Turkish and US officials plan to create an ISIS-free zone near Turkey’s border.
More than 250,000 people died and over a million were wounded during the Syrian crisis, which began in March 2011.
ISIS Terrorizes Egypt
In Egypt, police searches and diplomatic efforts have intensified to find 30-year-old Tomislav Salopek, a Croatian who was kidnapped July 22 in Cairo. The Islamic State group’s Egyptian affiliate said Wednesday that it would kill Salopek within 48 hours if the Egyptian government did not release jailed “Muslim women” — a reference to those detained in the government’s crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.
No new information was available Saturday about Salopek’s fate.
Meanwhile, Egyptian security officials and eyewitnesses said Egypt’s local Islamic State affiliate shot dead a 31-year-old Bedouin man it accused of cooperating with the military. They said the terrorists killed the man in a market in front of a crowd in the restive North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid.
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