A MASS exodus of Kurds from Syria has now passed 30,000, as people flee their country’s bloody civil war and stream across the border into Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region.
“It is a massive movement of people,” Dan McNorton, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said.
The figure includes some 20,000 believed to have crossed over on Thursday and Saturday last week, as well as 6,000 on Sunday and more than 4,000 yesterday. The men, women and children who made the trek join 1.9 million Syrians who have already found refuge abroad, in what has become a massive strain on neighbouring states.
The UNHCR has set up an emergency transit camp in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, to house some of the new arrivals. Other refugees were reportedly staying in mosques or with family or friends in the area.
Yesterday, dozens of refugees carrying their bags, belongings and babies roamed through rows of tents. Some men lined up to get blocks of ice from a pick-up truck. Nearby, children huddled around a truck to get water melon distributed by the regional security forces.
UNHCR said it was sending 15 lorryloads of supplies – 3,100 tents, two prefabricated warehouses and thousands of jerry cans to carry water – from its regional stockpile in Jordan. It said the shipment was already on the way and should arrive by the end of the week.
Kurds are Syria’s largest ethnic minority, making up more than 10 per cent of the country’s 23 million people. They are centred in the poor north-eastern regions of Hassakeh and Qamishli, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. There are also several predominantly Kurdish areas in the capital, Damascus, and the largest city, Aleppo.
Kurdish areas have been engulfed by fighting in recent months between Kurdish militias and Islamic extremist rebel factions with links to al-Qaeda. Dozens have been killed on both sides.
Following the assassination of a prominent Kurdish leader last month, a powerful Kurdish militia said it was mobilising to expel Islamic extremists.
Oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan boasts a powerful and experienced armed force known as the peshmerga, and earlier this month, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, vowed to defend Syria’s Kurds.
The Kurdish-rebel rift is just one layer in Syria’s increasingly complex and bloody civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, ripped apart the country’s delicate sectarian fabric and destroyed cities and towns.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used war planes, tanks and ballistic missiles to try to pound rebellious areas into submission.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday said regime forces in the coastal province of Latakia had recaptured nine villages as well as all the hilltop military observation posts that rebels seized two weeks ago.
Anti-Assad fighters, most of them from al-Qaeda-linked rebel factions, had swept through a string of villages in Latakia, a mountainous province along the Mediterranean coast and the heartland of Mr Assad’s Alawite sect. Those advances were some of the most significant rebel gains in months against government forces.
The rebel gains did not shift the strategic balance in the area, but they did embarrass the regime in a region that has been under tight government control since the Syrian revolt began more than two years ago.
Activists say fighting continues to rage in several villages still held by the rebels in the mountainous region.