BEIRUT (AP) — Several thousand Syrians, most of them Kurds, crossed into Turkey on Friday to find refuge from Islamic State militants who have barreled through dozens of Kurdish villages in northern Syria in the past 48 hours.
The extremists' offensive on the Kobani area near the border with Turkey prompted the leader of Iraq's Kurdish region to urge the international community to intervene to save Syria's Kurds from the militant onslaught. Together, the exodus to Turkey and appeal for help by an Iraqi leader show how the growing muscle of the Islamic State group has transcended borders to become a regional problem.
The United States began conducting airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq last month to protect U.S. facilities and personnel as well as minority groups that have come under threat from the militants. President Barack Obama is now trying to line up an international coalition to destroy the extremist group. The White House's plan also includes training and support for mainstream rebels in Syria, as well as potential airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria.
In a statement posted on his website, the president of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, said the Islamic State group's "barbaric and terrorist acts" on the Kobani area in northern Syria "threaten the whole entirety of the Kurdish nation and it has targeted the honor, dignity and existence of our people."
"The ISIS terrorists perpetrate crimes and tragedies wherever they are, therefore they have to be hit and defeated wherever they are," Barzani said, using an alternate name for the group.
By basing his appeal on humanitarian grounds, Barzani appeared to by trying to call for airstrikes similar to the ones the U.S. military has conducted in Iraq against Islamic State fighters to help Kurdish security forces and protect religious minorities like the Yazidi community.
But unlike their Iraqi brethren, Syria's Kurds have been left on their own in the fight against the Islamic State group, and it is unclear whether the U.S. would be willing to meet Barzani's request.
The main Kurdish force in Syria, known as the People's Protection Units or YPK, has been battling the Islamic State group for more than a year. But the YPK is still viewed with suspicion by mainstream Syrian rebels and their Western supporters because of perceived links to President Bashar Assad's government.
NATO member Turkey is also wary of the group, which it believes is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement that waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey.
The Syrian Kurds who are now fleeing to Turkey are escaping an Islamic State onslaught that has captured more than 20 villages in the Kobani area since Wednesday, sending civilians streaming toward the frontier.
"Our house was destroyed. We have no family no property left. We have nothing now. Everything is gone," said Ibrahim Halil, a Syrian Kurd who had just arrived in the Turkish village of Dikmetas in Sanliurfa province.
Halil was among some 3,000 people who entered Turkey on Friday. Many of those who crossed the border had been waiting at the frontier for 24 hours after Turkey, which is already home to nearly 850,000 registered Syrian refugees, refused to let them in on Thursday.
But on Friday, Turkey changed tack and decided to let them enter the country after reports emerged that militants were closing in on their communities, said Izzettin Kucuk, the governor of Turkey's Sanliurfa province.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara's priority is to help those in need on the Syrian side of the border, but "if that's not possible then of course they will be given help (inside Turkey)."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the U.S. was "deeply concerned" about the Islamic State group's reported gains in the Kobani area, and commended Turkey for continuing to show "great generosity" towards those fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq.
The battle over Kobani is part of a long-running fight between the Islamic State group and Syria's Kurds that has raged across several areas of northern Syria where large Kurdish populations reside. The clashes are but one aspect of Syria's broader civil war — a multilayered conflict that the U.N. says has killed more than 190,000.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed reporting.