Thousands of Syrians flee into Turkey amid intense fighting

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Syrians Fleeing Islamic State Wait at Turkish Border


AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) -- Thousands of Syrians cut through a border fence and crossed over into Turkey on Sunday, fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and jihadis.

The flow of refugees came as Syrian Kurdish fighters closed in on the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border, Kurdish officials and an activist group said, potentially cutting off a key supply line for the extremists' nearby de facto capital.

Taking Tal Abyad, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, would deprive the militant group of a direct route to bring in new foreign militants or supplies. The Kurdish advance, coming under the cover of intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the area, would also link their two fronts and put even more pressure on Raqqa.

In this Turkish border village, the refugees took by surprise the Turkish troops stationed there, who were overwhelmed by the large number of people crowding the crossing. Thousands of people had been gathering for more than a day on the Syrian side of the Akcakale border crossing before they broke through Sunday afternoon.

People threw their belongings over the fence while others passed infants into Turkey over barbed wires before following through a several-meter wide opening in the border fence.

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Thousands of Syrians flee into Turkey amid intense fighting
Syrians fleeing the war pass through broken down border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish Akcakale border crossing in the southeastern Sanliurfa province, on June 14, 2015. Turkey on June 14 began accepting onto its territory Syrian refugees fleeing the battle between Kurds and Islamic State (IS) jihadists for the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, an AFP photographer said. Dozens of Syrian refugees, many carrying sacks of possessions, started passing through the Akcakale border gate onto Turkish territory as thousands more awaited their turn to cross on other side. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians fleeing the war pass through broken border fences and trenches to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians fleeing the war pass through broken border fences and trenches to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians fleeing the war pass through border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians fleeing the war pass through border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian child fleeing the war is helped as she enters Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian child fleeing the war is lifted over border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man fleeing the war carries children through broken down border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian woman fleeing the war carries her child near border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians fleeing the war rush through broken down border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians fleeing the war rush through broken down border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on June 14, 2015. Turkey said it was taking measures to limit the flow of Syrian refugees onto its territory after an influx of thousands more over the last days due to fighting between Kurds and jihadists. Under an 'open-door' policy, Turkey has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian refugees wait for transportation after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, on June 10, 2015. More than 2,000 refugees crossed from Syria into Turkey on Wednesday, fleeing clashes pitting Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State (IS) group, according a Turkish official. They left their war-torn country via the Turkish border post of Akcakale, which faces the IS-held Syrian town of Tel Abyad. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians fleeing fighting in the city centre of the Syrian town of Tal Abyad ask for water as they gather at a border crossing on the Syrian side of the border, as seen from Turkey at the Turkish crossing of Akcakale in the southeast Sanliurfa province, on June 14, 2015. Turkish security forces on June 13 used water cannon and fired warning shots to push Syrians back from the frontier as thousands massed at a border crossing to escape escalating fighting. The Syrians were being held behind barbed wire fences around the Turkish crossing of Akcakale in the southeast of the country. They are fleeing a looming battle as Kurdish forces advance on the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, which is held by Islamic State (IS) jihadists and lies just across the Turkish border. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, thousands of Syrian refugees walk in order to cross into Turkey, Sunday, June 14, 2015. Thousands of Syrians cut through a border fence and crossed over into Turkey on Sunday, fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and jihadis. The flow of refugees came as Syrian Kurdish fighters closed in on the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Turkish soldier offers water to a Syrian refugee child after crossing into Turkey from Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Sunday, June 14, 2015. Thousands of Syrians cut through a border fence and crossed over into Turkey on Sunday, fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and jihadis.The flow of refugees came as Syrian Kurdish fighters closed in on the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Syrian refugee holds a child that was separated from his relatives in order for them to locate him, as under the watchful eye of Turkish soldiers, top, Syrian refugees are stuck after breaking the border fence and crossing into Turkey from Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Sunday, June 14, 2015. Thousands of Syrians cut through a border fence and crossed over into Turkey on Sunday, fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and jihadis.The flow of refugees came as Syrian Kurdish fighters closed in on the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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Turkish troops later brought in reinforcements and gathered up the refugees on the Turkish side of the border, preventing them from going deeper into Turkey.

Earlier Sunday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus speaking on the refugee situation at the crossing between in Tal Abyad and Akcakale, claimed that those refugees were not fleeing fighting between Kurds and the Islamic State group, but were rather trying to escape to Turkey in case their villages are hit by U.S.-led coalition bombings.

He said Turkey was providing humanitarian aid to them on the other side of the border while taking in anyone who is sick or injured. Kurtulmus said Turkey has taken in more than 2 million refugees since 2011.

"We are of the opinion that there isn't a humanitarian tragedy there," Kurtulmus told CNN-Turk television in an interview. "Our priority is for them to remain within their border. We will continue to provide humanitarian aid to them"

Hours after Kurtulmus spoke, Turkey reversed its decision and opened the border to allow more of the refugees in, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. It said however that this time, Islamic State group militants at the border prevented them from crossing into Turkey.

It put the number of people who were waiting to cross at around 2,500. Around 13,400 Syrians have fled to Turkey since June 1, the agency said.

On Sunday, Kurdish official Idriss Naasan said that Islamic State fighters have fled from Suluk, a few kilometers (miles) southwest of Tal Abyad, and that Kurds now hold the town. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said Islamic State fighters had withdrawn. The Observatory said the Kurds are about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Tal Abyad.

The Observatory reported later that Kurdish fighters captured more villages near Tal Abyad on Sunday adding that jihadis blew up to bridges southeast and southwest of the town to prevent them from pushing forward.

"It's only a matter of time before this area is liberated," Naasan told The Associated Press by telephone from northern Syria, saying the Kurds surround Tal Abyad from the east, west and south. The Turkish border - and the soldiers there - now hem the extremists in from the north.

However, Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said Islamic State fighters still control the road linking the Turkish border with Raqqa.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. deputy special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State group, told NBC's "Meet the Press" program on Sunday that Kurdish fighters and other units in Syria are scoring major territorial gains against the Islamic state group. Using an alternative acronym for the group, McGurk said the Kurdish fighters are "really giving a beating to ISIS and they're very close to cutting off the main supply route that ISIS has into its capital of Raqqa."

Since the beginning of May, members of the main Syrian Kurdish force, the People's Protection Units, or YPG, have taken more than 200 small Kurdish and Christian towns in northeastern Syria, as well as strategic mountains seized earlier by the Islamic State group.

They have pushed into Raqqa province, a stronghold of the Islamic State group. Along the way, they have picked up ammunition, weapons and vehicles left behind by the jihadis, almost mirroring the way the extremists overran Iraqi positions last year in their sweep across a third of that country.

The Islamic State group has declared areas of Syria and Iraq it holds as part of its self-declared caliphate, demanding the loyalty of the world's Muslims. Their gruesome propaganda videos of mass killings have drawn in foreign fighters, many coming in over the border from Turkey.

Even if the Kurds cut off Tal Abyad from Raqqa, the Islamic State group could bring in fighters across the border in Syria's Aleppo province, where they still hold ground. However, that would be an indirect route that could expose them to other fighting amid the long Syrian civil war against President Bashar Assad.

In Syria, a country now split mostly between Islamic militants and forces loyal to Assad, the U.S. has found a reliable partner in the YPG, the country's strongest Kurdish militia. They are moderate, mostly secular fighters, driven by revolutionary fervor and a desire to eventually have a nation of their own carved out in the region.

U.S. airstrikes continued Sunday in the area, as an Associated Press journalist on the Turkish side of the border from Tal Abyad saw one strike east of the town.

Nasser Haj Mansour, a defense official in Syria's Kurdish region, said YPG officials are coordinating with the U.S.-led coalition regarding a possible attack on Tal Abyad. He added that the aerial coverage prevented the Islamic State group from bringing reinforcements to the area.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

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