BEIRUT: Islamic State militants attacked a string of predominantly Christian villages in northeastern Syria on Saturday, triggering heavy clashes with Kurdish militiamen and their local allies, activists said.
The attack began around dawn and targeted at least three villages near the town of Tal Tamr along the Khabur river in Hassakeh province.
The Islamic State group kidnapped more than 220 Christians from the same area last month after overrunning several farming communities on the southern bank of the river.
The fighting on Saturday was focused in villages on the northern bank of the river as the militants press to capture Tal Tamr, a strategic crossroads some 35 kilometres (20 miles) from the city of Hassakeh, said Osama Edwards, director of the Assyrian Network for Human Rights.
"The battles are now very intensive, very violent," said Edwards, who is based in Sweden. "Tal Tamr is the main goal of the Islamic State, to give them the corridor to the eastern border to Iraq."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the fighting around Tal Tamr, which it said was coming under Islamic State artillery fire.
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Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman says the Islamic State extremists initially made gains before Kurdish fighters and local militiamen pushed them back.
There was no immediate word on casualties.