Kurds Seize IS Border Stronghold

BEIRUT (AP) -- Kurdish fighters took full control on Tuesday of the border town of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria by cutting off a vital supply line to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

A senior Kurdish commander, Haqi Kobane, told The Associated Press that Kurdish units known as the YPG that he leads along with their allies from the Free Syrian Army were starting to clean up the town along the border with Turkey from booby traps and mines planted by the extremists so that residents can return. The militants had been in control of the key town for more than a year.

"Daesh has been broken at the hands of the YPG... it is a victory for all Syrians," he said by telephone from northern Syria, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

The Kurdish advance caused the displacement of some 20,000 people who fled to Turkey in the past two weeks.

An Associated Press team on the Turkish side of the Akcakale border crossing said a large black and white Islamic State group flag was taken down from a pole in Tal Abyad Tuesday and replaced with a yellow, triangular YPG flag.

The border was calm, in sharp contrast to previous days when thousands of Syrians poured into the border crossing, some punching a hole in the fence to break into Turkey. On Tuesday, a few civilians were seen walking around, along with some people on the Turkish side apparently waiting to go back into Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed Tuesday that the main Kurdish fighting force, known as the YPG, has seized control of the town along with a contingent the Free Syrian Army.

The takeover of Tal Abyad marks the biggest setback yet to the Islamic State group, which lost a key supply line for its nearby self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. It deprives the group of a direct route for bringing in foreign militants and supplies, and links the Kurds' two fronts, putting even more pressure on Raqqa.

The U.S. provided crucial air cover for the Kurds in their advance toward Tal Abyad, launching concentrated airstrikes that targeted the militants inside and along supply routes.

The IS defeat in Tal Abyad is a stunning reversal of fortunes for the group which only last month captured the provincial capital of Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province and the historic town of Palmyra in central Syria.

The Islamic State group still holds about a third of Iraq and Syria, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. IS fighters continue to battle Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen for territory north and east of the capital, Baghdad.

On Tuesday, Iraqi officials said that families began returning to Tikrit two and a half months after security forces backed by Shiite militias drove the Islamic State group out of the Sunni city.

Gov. Raed al-Jabouri of Salahuddin province told the AP in a phone interview that around 200 families, who spent the past months either in makeshift tent camps or half-built and abandoned buildings outside the city, had returned the day before.

Al-Jabouri said more than 1,000 families are expected to return Thursday.

Deputy governor Ammar Hikmat said public services inside the city are still shabby due to military operations and that authorities are working to restore them. Hikmat added that the main challenge was electricity as the national grid offers less than 10 hours a day of power, while many of the generator plants outside the city are not working. He said drinking water was available for about 80 percent for the city.

Both al-Jabouri and Hikmat said work was still underway to compensate those who have had their properties damaged.

State television aired footage of security forces guarding buses packed with people, some waving Iraqi flags. Some residents could be seen embracing security forces when they reached Tikrit, while others fired rifles into the air in celebration.

The IS group captured Tikrit last summer during its sweep across the country. Iraqi forces managed to retake it following weeks of intense fighting and U.S.-led airstrikes, marking their biggest gain yet against the extremist group in Iraq.

According to Iraq's Migration and Displaced Ministry, around 400,000 people fled the province of Salahuddin, where Tikrit is the capital, since its capture in June 2014. Some families have trickled back to liberated areas outside Tikrit, but this the first time they are returning to the provincial capital.

After retaking Tikrit in April, officials said it would take time for people to return because bombs needed to be cleared, police stations opened and services restored.

(KA)