Turkey-Syria offensive: ‘Hundreds’ of IS relatives escape camp

Hundreds of foreigners affiliated with the Islamic State group (IS) have escaped from a camp in northern Syria amid a Turkish offensive, Kurdish officials say.

They say detainees attacked gates at the Ain Issa displacement camp as fighting raged nearby, report agencies.

Turkey launched an assault last week aimed at driving Kurdish-led forces from the region.

The UN says 130,000 people have fled their homes, and the figure may rise.

Turkey accuses the Kurds of being terrorists and says it wants to force them away from a ‘safe zone’ reaching some 30km into Syria.

It also plans to resettle more than three million Syrian refugees who are currently in Turkey inside the zone.

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the area effectively triggered the Turkish incursion against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the main Western allies in the fight against IS.

Details of the escape are still emerging - a monitoring group put the number who fled at 100, but Kurdish authorities say almost 800 relatives of foreign IS members have escaped.

Ain Issa holds about 12,000 displaced people, including nearly 1,000 foreign women and children with jihadist links. The Kurdish administration says the camp is ‘now without guards’.

BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher says that amid the chaos of the latest conflict, it’s unclear where they might have gone if their escape is confirmed.

But it gives new force to the Kurds’ exasperated threat that they cannot guarantee the security of the thousands of IS suspects they hold in the face of the Turkish offensive, our correspondent adds.

‘Whoever cares about the secure detention of the prisoners, they are welcome to come and find a solution,’ senior official Redur Xelil said, warning the Turkish operation was opening the way for IS to regroup.

The SDF says it is currently holding more than 12,000 suspected IS members in seven prisons, and at least 4,000 of them are foreign nationals. The exact locations have not been revealed, but some are reportedly close to the Turkish border.

IS has claimed recent car bombings and on Saturday declared a new campaign in Syria, which it said was to avenge its members’ detention in Kurdish-run prisons.

Turkey says it will take responsibility for IS prisoners it finds during its offensive.

Clashes on Saturday intensified around Ras al-Ain, amid conflicting accounts over which side was in control of the key border town.

Turkey said its military and allied Syrian rebels had captured the town centre, but the Kurdish-led SDF forces denied it had fallen.

Taking control of Ras al-Ain and the town of Tal Abyad is a key goal in the Turkish offensive.

Elsewhere, Turkey’s allies say they have seized strategically important roads 30km away from the border, and captured more than a dozen villages.

The SDF are facing numerous Turkish ground and air assaults along a stretch of the Turkey-Syria border about 75 miles (120km) long.

In another development, a female Kurdish politician and women’s rights activist was among nine civilians killed on a road in northern Syria on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group said.

Hervin Khalaf, secretary general of the Future Syria Party, was ambushed and shot dead along with a driver and an aide after returning from a meeting in Hassakeh, her party said.

A spokesman for the Turkish-backed rebel group the Syrian National Army denied carrying out the killings, saying it had not advanced that far, Reuters reported.

Pressure is building on Turkey to halt its operation, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says it will continue.

On Saturday, France said it would suspend all weapons exports to Turkey. Germany earlier announced it was reducing its arms sales to the Nato ally.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also warned President Erdogan in a telephone call that his operation could ‘undermine progress made against’ IS in Syria.

The Kurds have made clear they feel betrayed by Mr Trump’s withdrawal of US forces. He now says he wants the US to negotiate a truce between Turkey and the Kurds.

President Trump has suggested he would be prepared to use sanctions against Turkey if necessary.

Separately on Saturday, thousands of people marched in a number of European cities, including Paris and Berlin, in protest against the Turkish assault.