Nearly 1,000 Assyrian Christian families have fled their homes in northeastern Syria after jihadists kidnapped dozens of members of their community, an activist said on Wednesday.
Osama Edward, director of the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network, said they had fled in fear after jihadists from the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) took the Assyrian Christians hostage early this week.
"Since Monday, 800 families have taken refuge in the city of Hasakeh and another 150 in Qamishli," a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, Edward told AFP.
Edward said that, according to his sources in the community, ISIS terrorists had kidnapped "between 70 and 100 people, mainly women, children and the elderly."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said earlier that ISIS had taken 90 Assyrian Christians hostage in Hasakeh province since Monday.
Assyrian Christians, who are from one of the world's oldest Christian communities and whose presence in the Middle East predates Islam, have been under increasing threat since ISIS seized control of large parts of Syria.
The group, which also holds swathes of Iraq, last year declared an Islamic "caliphate" in areas under its control and has committed widespread atrocities.
A native of part of the region where 35 Assyrian villages are located, Edward said "the jihadists broke into houses at around 4:00 a.m. while everyone was asleep" on Monday.
ISIS has since Monday captured at least a dozen villages in the area, Edward said, including his wife's hometown of Tal Shamiram.
"When she tried to reach her uncle by telephone, a man replied and said: 'This is the house of the Islamic State,'" Edward said.
He said the hostages were taken to Shaddadi, an ISIS stronghold in Hasakeh province.
The jihadists had been intimidating the Assyrian villagers for several weeks, he said, including by threatening to remove crosses from their churches.
"People were expecting an attack, but they thought that either the Syrian army – which is just 30 kilometers (20 miles) from there – or the Kurds or the (US-led) coalition's strikes would protect them," he added.
A US-led coalition launched strikes against ISIS positions in Syria in September.
"ISIS has been losing territory because of the international coalition's strikes and they took the hostages to use them as human shields," Edward said.
The crisis for Christian communities in ISIS's crosshairs bears many chilling similarities to the plight of Syria's Yazidi community, which has been ravaged by massacres and forced expulsions at the hands of the jihadists.
AFP contributed to this report.