REUTERS - About 60,000 Syrian Kurds have crossed into Turkey in the past 24 hours, a deputy prime minister said on Saturday, fleeing an advance by Islamic State militants who have seized dozens of villages close to the border and are advancing on a Syrian town.
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Turkey opened a stretch of the frontier on Friday after Kurdish civilians fled their homes, fearing an imminent attack on the border town of Ayn al-Arab, which is also known as Kobani. Islamic State is now within 15 kilometers (9 miles) of the town, a Kurdish commander on the ground said.
Islamic State's advances in northern Syria have prompted calls for help by the region's Kurds who fear a massacre in Kobani. The town sits in a strategic position on the border and has prevented the radical Sunni Muslim militants from consolidating their gains across northern Syria.
Lokman Isa, a 34-year-old farmer, said he had fled with his family and about 30 other families after heavily-armed Islamic State militants entered his village of Celebi. He said the Kurdish forces battling them had only light weapons.
"They (Islamic State) have destroyed every place they have gone to. We saw what they did in Iraq in Sinjar and we fled in fear," he told Reuters in the Turkish town of Suruc, where Turkish authorities were setting up a camp.
Sitting in a field after just crossing the border, Abdullah Shiran, a 24-year-old engineer, recounted scenes of horror in his village of Shiran, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from Kobani.
"IS came and attacked and we left with the women but the rest of the men stayed behind ... They killed many people in the villages, cutting their throats. We were terrified that they would cut our throats too," he said.
Turkish soldiers looked on as the refugees, many of them women carrying bundles on their heads, streamed across. Hundreds of people huddled in the dusty fields with their few belongings.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus put the number of Syrian Kurds to have crossed the 30-kilometer section of the border that has been open since Friday at 60,000. Officials said many thousands were still waiting to cross on Saturday evening.
"The United States, Turkey, Russia, friendly countries must help us. They must bomb Islamic State. All they can do is cut off heads, they have nothing to do with Islam," said Mustafa Saleh, a 30 year-old water industry worker.
"I would have fought to my last drop of blood against Islamic State but I had to bring the women and children."
'State of terror'
Kurdish forces have evacuated at least 100 villages on the Syrian side since the militants' onslaught started on Tuesday.
"Islamic State sees Kobani like a lump in the body, they think it is in their way," said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria's civil war.
The Islamic State group has executed at least 11 Kurdish civilians, including boys, in the villages it has seized near Kobani, the Observatory said.
More than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey late on Friday to help push back Islamic State, said Abdulrahman, adding it was not clear which group the fighters belonged to.
"Islamic State is killing any civilian it finds in a village," Mustefa Ebdi, director of a local radio station called Arta FM, told Reuters by telephone from the northern outskirts of Kobani. He said he could see thousands of people waiting to cross the border into Turkey.
"People prefer to flee than to remain and die," he said. "(Islamic State wants) to eliminate anything that is Kurdish. This is creating a state of terror."
On his Facebook page Ebdi said the killing of 34 civilians - women, elderly, children and the disabled - had been documented. He said residents of 200 villages had been forced to flee. Scrambling to coordinate aid, the mayor of Suruc, Orhan Sansal, described the situation in the area as "chaotic".
"Help is coming but there are problems with accommodation. Some people are staying with relatives, some in wedding halls, some in mosques and municipal buildings," he said.
Esmat al-Sheikh, head of Kurdish forces defending Kobani, said clashes were occurring to the north and east on Saturday.
Islamic State fighters using rockets, artillery, tanks and armored vehicles had advanced further toward Kobani overnight and were now within 15 kilometers, he told Reuters by telephone.
At least 18 Islamic State fighters were killed in clashes with Syrian Kurds overnight as the militant group took control of more villages around the town, according to the Observatory.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani called on Friday for international intervention to protect Kobani from the Islamic State advance, saying the insurgents must be "hit and destroyed wherever they are."
The United States is drawing up plans for military action in Syria against Islamic State, which has seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and has proclaimed a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
Western states have increased contact with the main Syrian Kurdish political party, the PYD, whose armed wing is the YPG, since Islamic State led a lightning advance in Iraq in June.
The YPG says it has 50,000 fighters and should be a natural partner in the coalition the United States is trying to build.
But such cooperation could prove difficult because of Syrian Kurds' ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group listed as a terrorist organization by many Western states due to the militant campaign it has waged for Kurdish rights in Turkey.
The PKK on Thursday called on the youth of Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast to join the fight against Islamic State.