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ISIS Loses Control of Crucial Syrian Border Town

The black flag of the Islamic State, left, flew over Tal Abyad, Syria, on Tuesday. After Kurdish and rebel fighters took over the town later Tuesday, they hoisted a Kurdish militia flag.
June 16, 2015

ISTANBUL — Kurdish militias and rebel fighters on Tuesday took full control of the strategic Syrian town of Tal Abyad on Turkey’s border, striking a blow against the Islamic State and expanding their realm of control.

Kurdish commanders and activists said the opposition forces had taken full control of the town on Tuesday after seizing most of it the night before after a withdrawal of Islamic State militants.

A Kurdish commander, Haqi Kobane, told The Associated Press that opposition forces were clearing booby traps and mines throughout Tal Abyad. The Islamic State had controlled the town for more than a year, using it to smuggle in fighters and supplies bound for its stronghold in the city of Raqqa.

The Kurds and Arabs who seized the town celebrated their victory by tearing down the jihadists’ black flags and replacing them with their own, while expressing hope that they could use the border crossing with Turkey to supply their communities.

Graphic | ISIS Loses Key Town at Syrian Border Tal Abyad, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey, is under siege.

But that appeared unlikely, with Turkish officials expressing dismay that a force dominated by a Kurdish militia from the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., had taken the town. The group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which has waged a 30-year insurgency against Turkey.

While particularly sensitive to the P.K.K., Turkey’s leaders have long seen any advance by Kurdish forces in Syria as a threat to their national security, and have characterized those fighters as no better than the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, an Arabic acronym.

“Daesh attacks and kills those it captures. Kurdish militias seize certain regions and force people living there to migrate,” said Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in comments to the state broadcaster TRT on Tuesday. “It doesn’t matter who comes — the regime, Daesh, the P.Y.D. — they are all persecuting civilians.”

The advance of opposition forces toward the town last week, facilitated by heavy bombing of Islamic State targets by an American-led military coalition, sent a new wave of refugees flooding toward Turkey, which opened its border gate on Sunday, letting several thousands of them cross.

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The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday that fighting in the area had pushed more than 23,000 new refugees into Turkey since June 3, adding to the nearly two million Syrian refugees already there.

The new refugee flow has led to accusations by Turkish officials and rebels elsewhere in Syria that Kurdish militias were forcibly displacing Arab civilians, although no clear evidence of ethnic cleansing has come to light. The United Nations said that the refugees were fleeing fighting in the area, and that some of them had come from Iraq.

It remained unclear how many Islamic State fighters had been killed in the battle, and the fact that the jihadists had apparently not used car bombs — their weapon of choice — to defend the town suggested that they had not put up much of a fight.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, said that at least 40 Islamic State fighters had been killed in coalition airstrikes on convoys as they fled.

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The Turkish military said it had detained five men accused of being members of the Islamic State at the border crossing on Monday, Turkish news media reported.

Saleh Muslim, a Kurdish activist, said by telephone from Syria that opposition forces were now fighting Islamic State militants in villages farther south on the road to Raqqa. He said the militants were filling the villages with explosives before leaving, a tactic the group has used to devastating effect in both Syria and Iraq.

Ceylan Yeginsu and Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Maher Samaan from Beirut, Lebanon.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece addressed lawmakers in Athens on Tuesday.
June 16, 2015

BRUSSELS — Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, on Tuesday blasted his country’s creditors for austerity measures that he said were humiliating and strangling his people as pressure mounted on Athens to present reforms in exchange for bailout funding.

With critical deadlines pressing — the Greek bailout program expires in two weeks, when a huge payment on debt is due — European Union policy makers were discussing the possibility of an emergency summit meeting to determine a solution if eurozone finance ministers fail to broker a deal at their meeting on Thursday.

The standoff with Greece could have severe repercussions for European integration if Greece becomes the first country forced out of the 19-member currency bloc.

European stock markets and the euro were little changed on the day, and only in Athens did things appear particularly bleak, as stocks fell nearly 5 percent and bond yields stood at levels suggesting investors believe default on Greece’s bailout loans was a distinct possibility.

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Michael Heise, chief economist for Allianz, the German insurance giant, said in an interview that he believed the eurozone’s other member states would “take sensible action” to ensure stability, and that the European Central Bank “stands ready to intervene if necessary” to calm markets.

Still, he noted, “no one really knows how this sort of thing would play out.”

The latest round of months of talks between Athens and its creditors broke down during the weekend over the steps that Greece must take to reform its pension and tax systems in exchange for desperately needed financing.

Since winning a four-month extension of the country’s bailout program in February, Mr. Tsipras has sought to elevate the talks to the highest political level in order to minimize opposition from the creditors — the eurozone member states, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Along with the European Commission, the central bank and the fund are also keeping track of whether Greece is carrying out reforms and meeting budget commitments.

Preben Aamann, a spokesman for the European Council, the body that organizes leaders’ summit meetings, said on Tuesday that no decision would be made on whether to hold a meeting of euro-area leaders until later this week.

The “next and hopefully decisive step is the Eurogroup,” Mr. Aamann said, referring to the group of finance ministers who are meeting Thursday in Luxembourg.

In an address to lawmakers of his leftist Syriza party, Mr. Tsipras said he would keep working with creditors for a deal. But he combined that appeal with a renewed stridency.

“We will keep working for a solution” but any agreement should “redistribute the burden” and not hurt salaried workers and pensioners who have already suffered in the five-year crisis, he said in a speech broadcast live on Greek television.

“The creditors want to humiliate the Greek people” and “to send the message that a popular mandate cannot change anything,” he said.

Mr. Tsipras, whose left-wing government was elected in January on a platform of putting the interests of Greece’s electorate before those of its creditors, challenged European leaders to move more rapidly toward recommendations by the International Monetary Fund to ease Greece’s huge debt burden.

“How can they accept I.M.F. à la carte?” Mr. Tsipras asked. “They accept its measures but not its call for debt restructuring.”

But Mr. Tsipras also accused the fund of “criminal” responsibility for errors in Greece’s economic reform program that deepened the recession. As for the European Central Bank, another major creditor, it was “continuing with a policy of financial asphyxiation” of Greece, Mr. Tsipras said.

The European Central Bank was expected to decide Wednesday whether to extend further emergency funding to Greece’s beleaguered banks.

Mr. Tsipras also hinted at a broader impact, beyond “small Greece” in the event of a default or his country’s departure from the single currency. “The time has come for Europe to seriously discuss not the fate of Greece but the future of the eurozone,” he said.

But euro-area leaders are likely to resist that appeal for direct intervention as long as possible, to avoid capitulating to Mr. Tsipras’s strategy.

And in what amounted to a thinly veiled warning to Mr. Tsipras to avoid counting on a gathering of leaders to deliver Greece a better deal than finance ministers, Mr. Aamann of the European Council said that there “should be no illusions that an agreement becomes easier” or “more advantageous over time” with the leaders’ intervention.

The acute frustration among European Union leaders with the government in Athens was on display Tuesday evening in Brussels, where Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, told a news conference some of his proposals for Greece had been misrepresented.

Mr. Juncker said he proposed a plan to Mr. Tsipras to support investment there until the end of the decade. But Mr. Juncker complained that the government in Athens failed to tell the Greek people “exactly what the commission, being one of the three institutions in charge of all this, are really proposing.”

Mr. Juncker said he had had no contact with the Greek government since Sunday night, when negotiations in Brussels between senior Greek officials and representatives of creditors ended acrimoniously.

Mr. Juncker was addressing a joint news conference with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, who said Greece continued to meet the Atlantic alliance’s guidelines for member states to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Mr. Stoltenberg declined to comment on a suggestion by Mr. Juncker for Greece to make a “modest cut” in military spending.

“Greece has been for many, many years a highly valued and staunch ally,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. Finding a solution for Greece would be “important for the European Union, for Greece, and all of us,” he said.

James Kanter reported from Brussels, and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.

David Jolly contributed reporting from Paris.

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(via NY Times)