BEIRUT – Thousands of members of a religious minority group under attack by Islamic extremists have fled across the border from Iraq to seek refuge with the Kurds of northeastern Syria, said two Kurdish officials and an activist on Saturday.
Ekrem Hasso and Juan Mohammad told The Associated Press that the Yazidis fled after Kurdish fighters were able to open a safe passage into Syria following clashes with the Islamic State group.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also said thousands of people have fled from Iraq into Syria but had no exact number.
The U.S. has launched airdrops to aid thousands of Yazidis who have been trapped on a mountaintop near the Syria border for days by the militants.
The extremists have captured hundreds of Yazidi women, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians have fled in fear as the militants seized a string of northern Iraqi towns and villages in recent days.
The Yazidis are a Kurdish speaking minority practicing an ancient pre-Islamic religion with links to Zoroastrianism.
Mohammed, a spokesman for the local administration in the Syrian city of Qamishli, said there are currently about 7,000 people in Norouz Camp, which has about 300 tents, as well as thousands others who have arrived in other parts of the region.
“We are doing all we can to bring them to Rojava,” Mohammed said giving the name used by Kurds to refer to a predominantly Kurdish region in northeastern Syria. “People are dying on the way.”
He added that some women have lost their children on the way because of exhaustion and fear. Talking about Yazidis who were able to make it into Syria he said they are arriving “in miserable conditions. They are barefoot, tired and left everything behind.”
“If we don’t help those people they will be subjected to genocide,” said Mohammed referring to the people who are still in Iraq.
Mohammed said more than 20,000 Yazidis are on their way to Syria through the safe route but they and Kurdish fighters are coming under attack by Islamic State group fighters. He said that so far nine Kurdish fighters have been killed since Friday between Iraq and Syria while protecting the fleeing Yazidis.
Hasso, an official at administration of the Syrian Kurdish region known as Jazeera, said Kurdish fighters with the People’s Protection Units were able to open the safe route Thursday night after intense clashes with the Islamic State that left dozens dead or wounded. He said the majority of Iraqis arriving are Yazidis in addition to a smaller numbers of Christians.
The units are dominated by members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish group, affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish movement PKK, which long fought for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.
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Members of the units have been fighting against jihadis in northern Syria since last year and have been able to force them out of predominantly Kurdish areas. The oil-rich northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh has its own Christians and Yazidis populations.
“Our (local) government is on alert and we call upon international relief agencies to come here and help us. We need tents, blankets and food,” said Hasso by telephone from the Norouz camp. He added that three other camps are also receiving Iraqis who are fleeing.
“The conditions are catastrophic here and our capabilities are very modest,” Hasso said adding that some Syrians have received Iraqis in their homes while others are donating food and clothes.
The Yazidis practice an ancient religion that the Sunni Muslim radicals consider heretical. The Islamic state views Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as infidels, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.