By Bulent Kilic, AFP
DIKMETAS, Turkey–More than 100,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing advancing Islamic State jihadists have poured across the border into Turkey since Ankara opened up its southern frontier on Friday, the country’s deputy prime minister said. Forty-three-year-old Muhammed Isa — who made the crossing along with thousands of terrified men, women and children on Saturday — said he fled with his family of seven as the militants razed his village.
“The IS came to our village and threatened everyone,” said the driver. “They bombed our village and destroyed all the houses. They beheaded those who chose to stay.” Syrian Kurds had been massing since Thursday on the other side of the border as IS extremists seize dozens of villages in a lightning offensive as they close in on the strategic Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known to the Kurds as Kobane. A refugee from Kobane, Ahmet Omer Hadi, said he walked five hours to the Turkish border, and waited a day to cross. “When we fled (Kobane), we left everything behind,” said the 37-year-old, who said he made a living selling fuel oil. Turkey opened its border on Friday after new fighting near Kobane prompted a mass exodus of residents, with security forces cutting the barbed wire curled along the frontier to make it easier for civilians to cross. “As of today, the number of Syrian Kurds who entered Turkey has exceeded 60,000,” Numan Kurtulmus told reporters on Saturday in the southern province of Sanliurfa, where the refugees have taken shelter. “May God never let anyone be a refugee again. They are welcome here, but we hope they can go back to their home, their country as soon as possible,” he said.
Kurtulmus said Turkey’s decision to welcome the refugees was a sign of its “powerful” status. “This is something we should be proud of. Even countries wealthier than us cannot take in 60,000 people in one day,” he said.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu echoed him, saying: “The lives of all those who fled to Turkey from Syria and Iraq are sacred for us, just like the lives of our own citizens.”
“Whoever takes shelter here, we will welcome them regardless of their religion, ethnicity or sect,” he said in the capital Ankara.
The influx of refugees came as Ankara announced that 46 of its nationals seized by IS extremists in Mosul in June had been released and were back in Turkey. ‘Life-saving importance’ An AFP journalist in the southern Turkish town of Dikmetas saw thousands of civilians pouring across the border. A cloud of grey smoke rose above a field and the sound of gunfire could still be heard in Dikmetas, in a sign of ongoing clashes, AFP journalists said. Refugees were handed food and water by Turkish soldiers and aid workers. Weeping parents were seen carrying disabled children in their arms.
The new arrivals were living in the street, staying in wedding venues and mosques or with relatives.
Ankara, which has given shelter to some 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian conflict, had been refusing to accept any more for fear of being overwhelmed by a new influx. “We have opened our doors because we had to,” Kurtulmus said earlier Saturday, adding that Turkey was ready to cope with an even larger refugee influx. “We are ready for both the worst-case and the best-case scenario,” he said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a vocal critic of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, said this week the army was mulling the prospect of establishing a buffer zone along its volatile border.
The U.N.’s refugee agency on Friday welcomed “Turkey’s prompt action in ensuring safe haven for and extending support to Syrian-Kurdish civilians seeking to cross its borders.”
“It is of life-saving importance, that these people have access to safe haven,” said Amin Awad, director of the UNHCR’s Middle East and North Africa bureau. “Its actions … were right and humane in a very difficult situation.”