BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants staged a surprise attack early Tuesday in northeastern Syria, killing at least 21 people, many of them civilians who had fled fighting in areas of Syria and Iraq held by the extremist group, a Kurdish spokesman and Syrian activists said.
The attack took place after militants sneaked into the village of Rajm Sleibi, a front line that separates the Kurdish-controlled Hassakeh province and IS-held areas further south.
The village, near the Iraqi border, houses a temporary camp for displaced people fleeing IS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq.
Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the main Kurdish fighting force in Syria, said the attack started with an early morning assault by IS militants on a checkpoint in Rajm Sleibi belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed Kurdish-dominated force that fights the Islamic State.
The militants then “committed a massacre” against displaced civilians as they sought to enter SDF-controlled territory, Khalil said.
Khalil told The Associated Press that at least 21 civilians were killed and 15 wounded. He added that the attack came a few hours after IS suicide bombers dressed in civilian clothes sneaked into the town of Shaddadeh and engaged SDF forces, triggering clashes.
The Islamic State group is under attack by an array of forces in Syria and Iraq.
In Syria, the Kurdish-dominated SDF, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, is now fighting to recapture the town of Tabqa from the Islamic State group.
The town is an important stronghold for the militants, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of their de facto capital, the city of Raqqa. The Kurdish-led opposition fighters have pushed the extremists to northern neighborhoods of Tabqa, close to one of Syria’s largest dams.
In Iraq, the extremist group is fighting for survival against Iraqi forces and their allies in the last neighborhoods it still holds in the western part of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Rajm Sleibi lies about 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of the town of al-Hol, which houses a refugee camp for civilians displaced from Syria and Iraq. A Kurdish activist said it is the entry point to Hassakeh for Syrians civilians fleeing the eastern cities of Deir el-Zour and Raqqa in Syria, and those fleeing from Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq.
The activist, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing for his own safety, put the death toll at 22, saying the victims were mostly women and children displaced from the conflict.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the Syrian conflict through activists on the ground, said Tuesday’s attack included suicide bombers and heavy clashes with the Kurdish-dominated U.S.-backed rebels. The Observatory put the death toll at 24 killed.