Hundreds of Kurdish militiamen massed in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain on Thursday in a mounting standoff with mainly jihadist Arab-led rebels who had seized much of the town from government forces, a watchdog said.
It was the latest in a string of largely peaceful drives for control of mainly Kurdish inhabited areas of the northeast and northwest that neighboring Turkey fears has given succor to the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) it has been fighting for nearly three decades.
The Turkey-backed rebels of the Free Syrian Army accuse the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of having links to the PKK, which has been fighting for self-rule just across the border in southeastern Turkey since 1984, and charge that it is in cahoots with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The PYD insists its fighters are entirely Syrian but Washington has backed Ankara in insisting that Syria will not be allowed to become a rear base for the PKK in the face of the 20-month uprising against Assad's iron-fisted rule.
The standoff between the Kurds and the Arab-led rebels -- most of whom the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said were drawn from hardline Islamists opposed to the new opposition coalition recognized some Arab and Western states -- highlighted a growing dilemma for the rebels' supporters.
Some 200 fighters from the Al-Qaeda loyalist Al-Nusra Front and 100 from the allied Ghuraba al-Sham advanced on Ras al-Ain, backed by three tanks they had captured from the Syrian army, the Observatory said.
They were faced by 400 Kurdish militiamen in the northeastern town which has already been largely deserted by its residents, thousands of whom have poured across the border into Turkey, the Britain-based watchdog and residents said.
“Most residents have fled, and the few who remain are living in fear, in poor humanitarian conditions,” one of them, Abu Mohammed, told AFP.
“Because of the fighting and bombing, water and electricity have been cut off completely.”
On Monday, at least 34 people were killed in fighting between the mainly Islamist fighters and the Kurdish militia. Most of the dead were on the rebel side.