The kidnapping of nearly 100 Assyrian Christians by Islamic State militants in Syria has prompted terrified families to flee their homes, activists said on Wednesday, as Washington vowed to defeat the group.
Nearly 1,000 families have fled villages in the northeastern province of Hasakeh since Monday's kidnappings, according to the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network.
About 800 of them have taken refuge in the city of Hasakeh and 150 in Qamishli, a Kurdish city on the Turkish border, the group said, adding that the number of displaced people came to about 5,000.
Most of the hostages were women, children or elderly.
The United States and United Nations condemned the mass abduction, the first of its kind in the war-torn country, and demanded the release of the hostages.
"ISIL's latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, using another acronym for IS.
Her comments were echoed by US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
"The international community stands united and undeterred in its resolve to bring an end to ISIL's depravity. The United States will continue to lead the fight to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL."
The UN Security Council also condemned the abductions, demanding the hostages be immediately and unconditionally released.
Osama Edward, director of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, said he believed the abduction was linked to the jihadists' recent loss of ground in the face of US-led air raids against IS that began in Syria in September.
"They took the hostages to use them as human shields," he told AFP.
The jihadists, who are battling Kurdish fighters on the ground, may try to exchange the Assyrians for IS prisoners, he said.
Their aim was to take the Assyrian Christian village of Tal Tamer, near a bridge that links Syria to Iraq, he said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Kurdish fighters recaptured three Assyrian villages and a nearby Arab village Wednesday.
"The (Kurdish) People's Protection Units (YPG) has reclaimed Tal Shamiran, Tal Masri, Tal Hermel and Ghbeish," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
But fighting continues in the area, he added.
'Brutal and Inhumane'
In Tal Shamiran, the jihadists burned down part of a church.
And in the Arab village of Ghbeish, IS decapitated four men, and burned down houses and a school. They accused the villagers of "collaborating" with the Kurdish fighters.
The Assyrians, from one of the world's oldest Christian communities, have been under increasing threat since IS captured large parts of Syria.
Last week, the IS branch in Libya released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, mostly Egyptians.
Edward, a native of an area of Hasakeh province home to 35 Assyrian villages, said the jihadists broke into houses at night as people slept.
The hostages were then taken to Shaddadi, an IS provincial stronghold.
The jihadists had been intimidating the villagers for weeks, he said, including threatening to remove crosses from their churches.
"People were expecting an attack, but they thought that either the Syrian army, which is just 30 kilometres (18 miles) from there, or the Kurds or the (US-led) coalition's strikes would protect them," Edward said.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and Iran had a "mutual interest" in defeating IS but said the long-time foes were not cooperating to do so.
"They are totally opposed to ISIL and they are in fact taking on and fighting and eliminating ISIL members along the Iraqi border near Iran and have serious concerns about what that would do to the region," Kerry told lawmakers.
"So we have at least a mutual interest, if not a cooperative effort."
Kerry, who has been pivotal to Washington's drive to strike a deal to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, said the United States had not asked Tehran to get involved in the fight against IS.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Catholic archbishop of Hasakeh-Nisibi accused Turkey of allowing jihadists responsible for the persecution of Syrian Christians to cross its border unchecked, while preventing Christians from fleeing.
"In the north, Turkey allows through Lorries, Daesh (IS) fighters, oil stolen from Syria, wheat and cotton: all of these can cross the border but nobody (from the Christian community) can pass over," Jacques Behnan Hindo said.
There were 30,000 Assyrians in Syria before the country's civil war erupted in 2011. At that point Syria had an estimated Christian population of about 1.2 million.
In other developments, an Australian who had travelled to Syria to join the Kurds was killed in Hasakeh, the first Westerner to die fighting in their ranks, the Observatory's Abdel Rahman said.
And three New York residents were arrested for plotting to join jihadists in Syria, two of whom threatened to carry out attacks within the United States, officials said.