WASHINGTON - Hundreds of Yazidis have fled insecurity in northeastern Syria as the Turkish military and its allied militants continue their assault against Kurdish forces.
Yazidi activists in the region told VOA that at least eight villages belonging to the religious minority had been deserted because of intense fighting that broke out last week shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region.
Siban Sallo, a local Yazidi activist and journalist, said that more than 500 Yazidis had been displaced in eight out of 15 Yazidi villages extending across the northeastern Syria's border with Turkey.
The villagers have escaped south toward the areas that are still intact and remain under the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
"All 15 villages lost electricity after the station generating power in the area was hit by a mortar," Sallo told VOA.
Three Syriac-Christian villages in the vicinity also emptied out after the conflict broke out.
"Snipers were shooting at people in Tal Khatoun village. Four people from Tal Hasnak village were injured by fire," he said, adding that fear spread among the Yazidi residents that they could be targeted by Islamic hardliner elements among the Turkish-backed rebels.
Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority of about 550,000 people, mostly residing in northern Iraq and with a substantial number in northern Syria.
Radical islamist groups consider the Yazidis infidels and "devil worshippers" who should denounce their religion or be killed.
The Islamic State (IS) terror group killed thousands of Yazidi men and enslaved their women in a genocidal campaign in Iraq in 2014.
One of the displaced villagers from Turkey's recent campaign, language instructor Lina Khodor, 22, said she and her family of eight fled Tal Khatoun village after the Turkish army and allied militants attacked their houses. She said shelling destroyed several houses in the village.
Tal Khatoun is a small Yazidi village 14 kilometers from al-Qahtaniyah in the eastern Qamishli countryside.
"When the attack started around 3 a.m., first we heard endless gunfire rattling in our village, and then mortars fell on our homes. One mortar hit the oil station in the area, which caused a power outage. Then we just took off before it was too late," Khodor said.
The family members packed some clothes along with their identification cards and official documents and escaped to the neighboring town of al-Qahtaniyah, where a larger population of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians lives.
Khodor added that the Yazidi villagers feared that IS sympathizers in the area could be emboldened and their imprisoned leaders could break out amid chaos caused by the Turkish incursion. To protect themselves, they escaped to more populated areas to mix with the Muslim population.
"All women have left the village with their children, fearing that what happened to Yazidis in Sinjar in 2014 and Afrin in 2018 would happen to them. Only a few armed men are staying behind to protect their homes from looting," she told VOA.
Human rights organizations accuse Turkey-backed rebels of targeting the minority group in the predominately Kurdish town of Afrin in northwest Syria and forcing thousands of them to flee.
The ethnically and religiously diverse town in Aleppo's countryside was under protection of the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces before the Turkish incursion in March 2018.
Rights groups such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say they are documenting daily human rights violations by Turkey-backed rebels against Afrin residents, especially minorities.
Azad Diwani, a U.K.-based scholar and researcher, told VOA that many militants Turkey is backing in its operation in northeast Syria have radical jihadi sentiments, prompting fears among minorities in the region.
"Turkey-backed rebels destroyed religious temples and forced people to convert to Islam. We even heard that a number of women from the Alwaite sect were taken as sex slaves. They violate the rights of anyone who does not abide to their ideology," Diwani said.
Diwani said many factions who were a part of Turkey's operation in Afrin reportedly were recruited to participate in the attack on northeastern Syria.