HATAY, Turkey (Reuters) - After trudging for 40 days through the bitter cold and sometimes difficult terrain of northern Iraq, Ahmet Ali Bekir reached Turkey, one of 1,500 Turkmens to arrive in the last two days after fleeing deadly fighting near home.
“We came here after walking day and night for 40 days with our children. We came to Turkey by walking under rain and snow,” Bekir told Reuters at a migrant camp in the southern Hatay province, where Turkish authorities had settled the Turkmens.
Ethnic kin of the Turks, the Turkmens were fleeing clashes between Islamic State and Shi‘ite militias near the Islamic State-controlled town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq.
Iraqi Shi‘ite paramilitary forces have launched an offensive to capture Tal Afar and cut supply routes to Mosul, the militants’ last major stronghold in Iraq.
But Islamic State remains in control of the 60-km (40-mile)road between Mosul and Tal Afar, hindering the forces battling the jihadists from completing the encirclement of Mosul from the west.
Another 2,000 Turkmens are waiting in Syria’s Azaz province to cross into Turkey, a senior government official told Reuters on Wednesday, adding they would be taken in “gradually”.
Tal Afar’s pre-war population of about 150,000 to 200,000 was a mix of Sunni and Shi‘ite ethnic Turkmens until Shi‘ites fled the town after Islamic State’s ultra-hardline Sunni militants took over the region in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” over swathes of Iraq and Syria.
“We came from Tal Afar. We are Turkmens,” said Mahmut Bekir, another resident of the camp, as a group of women and children ate lunch nearby.
“Turkey was the only one to take us in. No other country took us in.”
Editing by David Dolan and Janet Lawrence