Kurdish forces have driven Islamic State fighters from over a dozen Assyrian Christian villages that the extremists had captured in northeastern Syria, marking a major defeat for the jihadist group.
"Following a 10-day offensive, Kurdish fighters took control early this week of 14 Assyrian villages that IS had controlled since February," Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Wednesday, the AP reported. The report noted that the extremist group's areas of control in Hasakeh are now limited to the province's southern fringes and the border with neighbouring Raqa.
Assyrian Christians, who account for about 2.5 percent of Syria's 1.2 million Christians, have been targeted by ISIS since the group seized control of Syria last year. In February, the group kidnapped over 220 Assyrian Christians after storming 35 different village in the Hasakah province, demanding $23 million for their release. Another 1,000 local Assyrian families are believed to have fled their homes in the wake of the abductions.
According to A Demand for Action, the Assyrian rights campaigning groups, Bishop Mar Mellis spoke to SBS Radio in Australia about the negotiations between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Islamists.
"We tried many times to negotiate with the people that captured them and for their release," he said. "We offered them an amount of money in accordance with the law of jizya [religious tax] but sadly after a week the negotiator between us returned and told us that ISIS wanted $100,000 for each person. They were asking for over $23 million."
He continued, "We are a poor nation. These people have not done anything wrong and won't harm anyone. We as Assyrians do not have this amount of money you are asking for." Bishop Mellis added, "We then thought we would wait, hoping they would come back to talk. Sadly, we received word that the 230 kidnapped people will be sent to the Court of Sharia in Raqqa, where a Muslim judge from Mosul will deliver their fate.
Osama Edward, head of the Sweden-based Assyrian Network for Human Rights, said that the Kurds' recent recapture of the villages "was made possible by intense raids by the international coalition" led by the United States against IS, the BBC reports.
However, he noted that photos "show a lot of destruction of houses and churches" and explained that many Assyrian Christians are afraid to return to their homes because they "fear that IS booby-trapped their houses before fleeing."
The Observatory also reported that Kurdish militia took control of the strategic village of Al-Mabrukah, southwest of the flashpoint town of Ras al-Ain on the Syrian-Turkish border, which could open the road towards Tal Abyad, a border town used by IS as a gateway from Turkey.