BEIRUT - A US-led alliance launched air strikes against Islamic State on Thursday in an area of northeast Syria where the militants are now estimated to have abducted at least 220 Assyrian Christians this week, a group monitoring the war reported.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air strikes targeted Islamic State fighters near the town of Tel Tamr, where the militants, also known as ISIS, had captured 10 Assyrian villages.
A prominent Syrian Christian, Bassam Ishak, told Reuters: "Some people have tried to call them by cellphone, the relatives that have been abducted, and they get an answer from a member of ISIS who tells that they will send the head of their relative.
"They are trying to terrorise the parents, the relatives in the Christian Assyrian community," said Ishak, who is president of the Syriac National Council of Syria.
Islamic State has staged mass killings of religious minorities, as well as fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to swear allegiance to the 'caliphate' it has declared in parts of Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Arab world.
Its fighters were shown beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya last week. Last August, it killed or enslaved hundreds of Iraq's Yazidis, whom it considers devil worshippers, just over the nearby frontier in Iraq.
The militants have previously used kidnappings to trade captives for their own captured fighters. It was not clear if they planned to do the same this time.
"What is happening is a threat to our existence," said Ablahd Kourieh, an Assyrian Christian who is deputy head of a Kurdish-led defence council in northeastern Syria, speaking to Reuters from the region via Skype. He estimated the number of abducted Assyrians was even higher, at between 350 and 400.
He called on the US-led alliance to mount air strikes and to arm Kurdish-led forces which are battling Islamic State in the region. He estimated that 3,000 Assyrians had fled from the villages for the main cities of Qamishli and Hasaka.
"We call for bombardment of the terrorists' positions there, and the provision of quality weapons," said Kourieh. He said there had been no contact with Islamic State, which has yet to claim the abductions.
The United States and its allies have carried out hundreds of air strikes in both Iraq and Syria since launching a campaign to "degrade and destroy" Islamic State last year. Washington on Wednesday condemned the attacks against Christians, which it said included the burning of homes and churches and abduction of women, children and the elderly.