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ISIS Fighters Seize Control Of Christian Areas In Syria

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Syria, there are reports that ISIS fighters have seized control of several predominantly Christian villages. The militants are said to be chasing out, capturing and, in some cases, killing the people who live in these areas. NPR's Alice Fordham is following the story. And Alice, what do you know about what's happened in these villages and where are they?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Right. Well, we're talking about a string of small, mostly Assyrian Christian villages along a river in the east of Syria. To the west of them is a mountain - and from talking to people there and people who have relatives there, it seems that ISIS have been positioned on that mountain for several months. They would mount occasional forays into the villages, sometimes they would burn churches, and Kurdish and Christian fighting groups would protect the villages. So it's been going back and forth. But the weekend, the Kurdish and Christian forces mounted an offensive against ISIS, and it seems what has happened is that ISIS pushed back ferociously starting on Monday morning. They've now captured several villages along the southern part of that river and the northern villages are evacuated of civilians. There's just fighters there trying to hold them.

MCEVERS: Is there any information about who might have been taken captive?

FORDHAM: Well, I will just say on this that no one, even the fighters on the ground, say that they have confirmed information on this. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reckons 90 people were taken from several villages. And Nineb Lamassu, who's an academic at Cambridge University in the UK - he has relatives there and says it's mainly people who couldn't run away, children or women and the elderly, but some men who were taken. People believe that they are still alive and being held captive because when they call their phones, they're answered by men who say, this is the Islamic State, and they claim that the captives are fine, but that they will be tried to determine who took up arms against ISIS. Most of the other people from these villages have fled to two nearby cities, and there's no clear reports of any demand for the captives just yet.

MCEVERS: And you said these were Assyrian villages - can you just remind us who the Assyrians are?

FORDHAM: Right. They're one of Syria's many minorities. They're their own ethnicity, and they're Christian. They're part of more than a million Christians who used to be part of the Syrian population. Of course, many Christians are displaced or refugees now.

MCEVERS: And so what is the significance of this area where these villages are? I mean, is this a strategic place for ISIS or for others?

FORDHAM: Yeah. It looks like they could possibly be pushing up this river south to north in the direction of a border crossing with Turkey which is called Ras al Ayn. You'll remember that they tried really hard to hold onto another border town with Turkey called Kobani, but they were forced out by U.S. airstrikes and by Kurdish and other armed forces.

MCEVERS: You know, we're hearing a lot about these attacks on these Christian villages in this particular part of Syria. What's happening in the rest of Syria?

FORDHAM: Yeah. Well, people who work there are really concerned about what the regime and other armed groups are doing in the cities. I was just talking today with the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council who are very active there, and he was saying that ISIS are part of the problem in Syria but not the problem, and he worries that there's a tendency to forget that. He wanted to remind people that there are thousands of civilians in areas besieged by regime forces on the outskirts of Damascus, for example, and that it's got even harder in the last year to get permission from the government to take aid to people in hard-to-reach places across Syria.

MCEVERS: All right, that's NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut. Alice, thanks so much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.