A Turkish man is carried into a hospital after being hit by a bullet from the… (AFP/Getty Images )
BEIRUT — A Kurdish militia with links to an outlawed group in Turkey was reported Thursday to be in control of a key border crossing along the Turkish-Syrian border as battles raged between its fighters and Syrian Arab rebels.
The renewed violence this week in Ras Ayn, on Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey, has again highlighted the country's ethnic and sectarian divisions that have come to the forefront during the more than two-year rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A fragile cease-fire between the Kurdish militiamen and Arab rebels in Ras Ayn fell apart this week, resulting in fierce clashes, according to accounts from Turkish authorities and others. At least two dozen people were killed, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group based in Britain.
The battles took place in northern Hasaka province, home to Syria’s largest concentration of ethnic Kurds, who are distinct from Arabs, the majority in Syria. Kurds represent an estimated 10% of the population nationwide.
According to various accounts, the clashes pitted the Kurdish fighters against Al Nusra Front, a rebel group that Washington has labeled a terrorist organization with links to Al Qaeda.
Ras Ayn was reportedly in control of forces affiliated with the Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish faction that Turkish officials view as a front for the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for decades against the government in Turkey.
Most Turkish factions in Syria are secular in nature and say they are opposed to Islamist rule, a fact that has long been a point of friction between Kurdish militiamen and some Syrian Arab rebel factions. Clashes have occurred previously between Kurdish fighters and rebels in the northern city of Aleppo and elsewhere in northern Syria.
According to a statement from the Democratic Union Party, “Islamist armed groups” fled the border city after battling with Kurdish militiamen and engaging in looting. Some surrendered and some fled to Turkey, the group said.
Kurdish activists have previously accused Turkey of aiding Islamist Arab rebels fighting against Kurdish militiamen in Syria. Kurdish leaders in Syria say they are fighting for a greater degree of autonomy from the Syrian state.
Turkish officials have said repeatedly that they would not tolerate an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. Turkey’s fear is that such a zone could be a launching pad for attacks against targets in Turkey.
The Turkish government is one of the major backers of the uprising against the Assad government. Syrian rebel recruits and arms for the insurgency regularly pass through Turkish territory. But the rebellion has resulted in spillover violence in Turkey and has emboldened the autonomy-minded Kurdish minority in Syria with close links to the PKK, Turkey’s longtime nemesis.
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Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.