BEIRUT — Islamic State militants have abducted at least 70 Christians, including women and children, after overrunning a string of villages in northeastern Syria, activists and relatives said Tuesday.
The Sunni extremist group, which follows a radical interpretation of Islam, has repeatedly targeted religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq since seizing control of large swaths of both countries. Islamic State fighters have ransacked churches, demolished Shiite and Sunni Muslim shrines, and enslaved women of the Yazidi community, a tiny sect IS considers heretical.
The latest assault began before dawn on Monday, when the militants swept through the villages nestled along the banks of Khabur River near the town of Tal Tamr in Hassakeh province. The area is predominantly inhabited by Assyrians, an indigenous Christian people who trace their roots back to the ancient Mesopotamians.
During the raids, the militants took between 70 and 100 Assyrians captive, said Nuri Kino, the head of the activist group A Demand For Action, which focuses on religious minorities in the Middle East. He said some 3,000 people managed to flee the onslaught and have sought refuge in the cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli.
Kino said his organization based its information on conversations with villagers who fled the attack and their relatives.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the abductions, but put the number of Christians held by the Islamic State group at 90. The Observatory relies on a network of activists inside Syria.
Both groups said that most of the captives come from the village of Tal Shamiram, located some 85 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the provincial capital of Qamishli.
An Assyrian Christian woman from Tal Shamiram who now lives in Beirut said she has been scrambling to find out what has become of her parents, as well as her brother and his wife and kids.
“Land lines have been cut, their mobiles are closed,” she told The Associated Press. “Have they been slaughtered? Are they still alive? We’re searching for any news.”
“My family visited me last month and returned to Syria. There were clashes but it was normal, nothing exceptional. I feel so helpless, I cannot do anything for them but pray,” she said by telephone, her voice breaking.
She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of endangering relatives believed to be held by the militants.
The Islamic State group’s online radio station, al-Bayan, said in a report Tuesday that IS fighters had detained “tens of crusaders” and seized 10 villages around Tal Tamr after clashes with Kurdish militiamen. IS frequently refers to Christians as “crusaders.”
It was not immediately clear what the Islamic State group planned to do with the Assyrians.
The Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria said on its Facebook page that the militants had moved their captives to the village of Umm al-Masamir on Mount Abdulaziz, some 25 kilometers south of Tal Shamiram. That raised fears, the network said, that IS could use the captives as human shields if there is a surge in violence in the area with Kurdish militiamen.
Another possibility is that the Islamic State group could use its captives to try to arrange a prisoner swap with the Kurdish and Christian militias it is battling in northeastern Syria. There is a precedent: the extremists have released Kurdish school children as well as Turkish truck drivers and diplomats after holding them for months.
The Islamic State also militants have a long history of killing captives, including foreign journalists, Syrian and Iraqi soldiers as well as Kurdish militiamen. Most recently, militants in Libya affiliated with the Islamic State group released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians.
The fighting around Tal Tamr has coincided with heavy clashes between Kurdish militiamen and Islamic State militants about 90 kilometers (55 miles) to the east near the Iraqi border. Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, launched an offensive over the weekend, quickly seizing some 20 villages from the extremists.
The fighting continued through Tuesday, as the YPG has captured another 10 villages, the Observatory said.
Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.