UN warns of massacre if militants take Syrian town
LEFTERIS PITARAKIS & JOHN HEILPRIN
Oct. 10, 2014
MURSITPINAR, Turkey (AP) — In a dramatic appeal, a U.N. official warned that hundreds of civilians who remain trapped in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani near the border with Turkey were likely to be "massacred" by advancing extremists and called on Ankara to help prevent a catastrophe.
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. Syria envoy, raised the specter of some of the worst genocides of the 20th century during a news conference in Geneva to underscore concerns as the Islamic State group pushed into Kobani from the south and east.
"You remember Srebrenica? We do. We never forgot. And probably we never forgave ourselves for that," he said, referring to the 1995 slaughter of thousands of Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces.
He spoke to reporters at a press conference in Geneva where he held up a map of Kobani and said a U.N. analysis shows only a small corridor remains open for people to enter or flee the town.
His warning came as the Islamic State group seized the so-called "Kurdish security quarter" — an area where Kurdish militiamen who are struggling to defend the town maintain security buildings and where the police station, the municipality and other local government offices are located.
The onslaught by the Islamic State group on Kobani, which began in mid-September, has forced more than 200,000 to flee across the border into Turkey. Activists say the fighting has already killed more than 500 people.
De Mistura said there were 500 to 700 elderly people and other civilians still trapped there while 10,000 to 13,000 remain stuck in an area nearby, close to the border.
"The city is in danger," said Farhad Shami, a Kurdish activist in Kobani reached by phone from Beirut. He reported heavy fighting on the town's southern and eastern sides and said the Islamic State group was bringing in more reinforcements.
U.S.-led airstrikes against the extremists appear to have failed to blunt the militants' push on Kobani. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that with the new advances, the Islamic State group was now in control of 40 percent of the town.
The U.S. Central Command said in a statement that the U.S.-led coalition conducted nine airstrikes in Syria on Thursday and Friday. It said strikes near Kobani destroyed two Islamic State training facilities, as well as vehicles and tanks.
On Friday, the militants shelled Kobani's single border crossing with Turkey in an effort to capture it and seal off the town, a local Kurdish official and Syrian activists said.
The official, Idriss Nassan, said Islamic State fighters aim to seize the crossing in order to close the noose around the town's Kurdish defenders and prevent anyone from entering or leaving Kobani.
Occasional gunfire and explosions that appeared to be rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells could be heard from across the border in Turkey, and plumes of smoke were seen rising in the distance. The Observatory said the militants shelled several areas in Kobani, including the border crossing.
In Geneva, de Mistura invoked the genocides in Srebrenica and Rwanda in 1994 as he appealed to the world to prevent another catastrophe.
The civilians of Kobani "will be most likely massacred," said the Italian-Swedish diplomat, who was appointed to the U.N. post in July. "When there is an imminent threat to civilians, we cannot, we should not be silent."
De Mistura appealed to Turkish authorities to allow volunteers and equipment to flow into Kobani and help its Syrian Kurdish defenders to stop the advance of the militants.
"We need that because otherwise all of us, including Turkey, will be regretting deeply that we have missed an opportunity," he said.
Turkey has deployed troops and tanks across the border, but despite U.S. pressure, Ankara has said it will not join the fight unless its doing so is part of a broader strategic shift by the coalition toward helping Syrian rebels overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Ankara is pushing for a buffer zone and a no-fly zone, and was supported on Friday by France's foreign minister, who called for the creation of a buffer zone between Syria and Turkey to protect refugees and civilians.
Laurent Fabius, who met with his Turkish counterpart Friday, stressed however that such a thing would require "extremely close international coordination." The U.S. has said it is not considering that option.
The U.S. wants access to the Turkish air base at Incirlik and an agreement to help train and equip moderate Syrian forces fighting Assad's government.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, speaking to reporters in Washington, said Turkey "has agreed to support train and equip efforts for the moderate Syrian opposition." She did not mention progress on Kobani.
The fight over Kobani has eclipsed the larger Syrian civil war, where Assad's forces continue to fight rebels seeking to topple him in many parts of the country.
On Friday, activists said at least nine civilians were killed in a government airstrike that targeted the village of Harra in the southern province of Daraa. More than 20 people were also killed a day earlier in government airstrikes in Damascus suburbs, they said.
The Syrian National Coalition, Syria's Western-backed main opposition group, accused Assad of "openly exploiting" the coalition's war against the Islamic State group to continue killing Syrians.
Heilprin reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.