Assyrian Christians describe harrowing flight from ISIS militants

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) - Danny Jano, an Assyrian Christian, fled with his family in their pyjamas when they heard that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group militants were approaching their home in north-east Syria.

"It was the longest and most difficult five hours of my life," he said by telephone from the provincial capital Hasakeh where they took refuge.

"We faced sniper fire, shelling, and one of the cars was hit with mortar fire."

Jano, his wife and two children fled on Monday, as ISIS militants approached during an offensive in which they have kidnapped at least 220 Assyrians in Hasakeh province.

"We heard gunfire and shelling for seven hours before we decided to leave our house," Jano told AFP.

"After that, we heard that Daesh is close to our village," he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

'FEAR LIKE NOTHING BEFORE'

Jano, who works as a tailor in his village of Tal Misas, said villagers left in tractors and cars.

The journey took him five terrifying hours.

"We felt fear like nothing before, but we didn't think twice," he said.

"We drove in our pyjamas, we didn't look back, and we didn't stop until we got here."

ISIS militants have seized at least 10 villages in the majority Assyrian Khabur area of Hasakeh since they began the offensive on Monday.

Women, children, and the elderly are reported to be among the members of the Christian minority they have kidnapped.

Activists and local officials said the offensive prompted some 5,000 people to flee the area, most of them heading to the cities of Qamishli and Hasakeh.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 35 ISIS militants, as well as 25 Kurdish and Assyrian militia fighters, had been killed since the offensive began on Monday.

Yukhana Harun, the head of local Assyrian Democratic Party, told AFP that the community had helped 1,100 families flee to Qamishli and Hasakeh city.

Speaking to AFP by phone from a welcome station for the arrivals in the provincial capital, he said "people had arrived with nothing" and were exhausted.

"This is a crime against the peaceful Assyrian people. They (ISIS) destroy coexistence, civilisation, and history, and they're dragging us centuries backwards, while the international community watches in silence. It's a massacre."

'UGLINESS BEYOND DESCRIPTION'

In Qamishli in north-west Hasakeh, 200 refugee families fleeing ISIS' advance were being hosted by local families, according to Jean Tolo of the Assyrian Association for Relief and Development.

"They arrived here in a terrible mental state," Tolo told AFP by telephone.

"The families have been arriving here non-stop for three days."

Assyrians number about 30,000 among Syria's 1.2 million Christians and mostly live along the Khabur river in Hasakeh.

Control of the province is largely divided between ISIS and Kurdish militia fighters, although regime forces are present in some provincial cities.

ISIS is known for its brutal treatment of minority groups in Syria and Iraq, where it has burned churches and attacked Christian neighbourhoods.

Jano's voice was quiet and heavy with grief as he described the ISIS attack.

"It's a crime whose ugliness cannot be described. They burned our houses, they blew up our churches, they kidnapped our families, and all this for what? This is the question we don't have an answer to," he said.

"But inevitably we will return. Tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then the day after."