US-led air strikes hit militants in Syria
A UNITED States-led alliance launched air strikes yesterday against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions in an area of north-eastern Syria where the group is estimated to have abducted at least 220 Assyrian Christians this week, a group monitoring the war reported.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air strikes had targeted ISIS fighters near the town of Tel Tamr, where the militants attacked a string of Assyrian villages earlier this week.
The kidnappings of the Christians - more than twice as many as previously reported - have prompted thousands more to flee their homes to avoid being captured by the Sunni Muslim extremists, activists said.
"No fewer than 220 Assyrian citizens were abducted by (ISIS) over the past three days from 11 villages" in Hasakeh province, the observatory said.
"Negotiations are under way through mediators from Arab tribes and a member of the Assyrian community to secure the release of the hostages," the Britain-based monitoring group said.
Many of the abductees are said to be women, children or the elderly.
The Assyrians, from one of the world's oldest Christian communities, have faced an increasing threat since ISIS captured large parts of Syria.
ISIS has ruthlessly targeted members of religious minorities, as well as fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to swear allegiance to the "caliphate" it has declared in parts of Syria and Iraq.
In Libya, an ISIS branch last week released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, mostly Egyptians.
The United States and United Nations denounced the mass abduction of Christians - the first of its kind in the war-torn country - and demanded their release.
Osama Edward, director of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, told AFP he believed the abductions were linked to the extremists' recent loss of ground in the face of US-led air raids.
"They took the hostages to use them as human shields," he said.
The terrorists, who are battling Kurdish fighters on the ground, may try to exchange the Assyrians for ISIS prisoners, he said.
The region is strategically important to ISIS as one of the bridges between land it controls in Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, it has lost ground in north-eastern Syria, after being pushed out of the Kurdish town of Kobani last month by Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS