Two thousand Kessab Armenians find safety in Latakia; International and Local organizations providing support
LATAKIA, Syria—A delegation of priests from the Catholicosate of Cilicia who had visited Latakia to assess the needs of Kessab Armenians and express solidarity returned to Antelias after the Sunday Badarak, the Armenian Weekly reports.
According to the delegation, the local Armenian community, the International Red Cross, and the Red Crescent are providing assistance to those who have sought refuge in the city. An estimated 2,000 Kessab Armenians are currently in Latakia.
“Many Armenian families are staying with relatives and friends, while others have sought refuge in the Armenian Church and the church’s hall,” said Syrian Armenian community activist Nerses Sarkissian during a phone interview with Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian.
“The Aleppo Armenian Prelacy as well as the Red Crescent are providing relief and assistance to these families in Latakia,” Sarkissian added.
Armenian residences occupied, looted
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) reported on a number of eye-witness accounts of looting and occupation of Armenian homes, stores, and churches left behind in Kessab.
Kessab Armenians who phoned their neighbors’ and relatives’ homes from Latakia discovered that their houses are already occupied by new residents, namely rebel fighters.
Two men, Minas Soghomonian and Joseph Kilaghbian, who called their own homes were greeted by militants who said, “We are enjoying your food.”
Ani Boymushakian called the Armenian Evangelical Church office. Intruders told her, “Now we are in control of this place, we just got here and we will do with it as we please.” She hung up as the fighters continued making threats.
Another displaced Kessab resident, Paren Hovsepian, called and was told by the intruders, in Turkish, that he had nice furniture.
Other witnesses have reported abductions and looting.
Dikranoohi Manjikian, an elderly, ill woman, who due to her medical conditions and inability to move was one of the very few not evacuated, said gunmen forcefully entered her apartment and harassed her verbally and physically, demanding gold and other valuables. After pleading with them that she had no such valuables, the gunmen searched the apartment and took whatever they were able to and left. She gave her account through a phone call.
Steve Shekhookian was on his motorcycle fleeing the area of fighting near Duzaghaj (Al-Shajara) in Kessab when he was stopped by gunmen and forced off of his motorcycle. He said the gunman who stopped him was bearded and didn’t speak Arabic. When he asked to be let free and told them that he is Armenian, the gunman brandished a large knife and threatened to slit his throat. Shekhookian was then handcuffed to a metal frame on the window of a nearby building. Meanwhile as the fighting intensified, the gunmen fled or hid and left him behind. He was able to break his handcuffs and fled the area into nearby bushes and made his way back off-road to safer areas where others were being evacuated.
Militants entered from Turkey
The armed incursion began on Friday, March 21, with rebels associated with Al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, Sham al-Islam and Ansar al-Sham crossing the Turkish border and attacking the Armenian civilian population of Kessab. The attackers immediately seized two guard posts overlooking Kessab, including a strategic hill known as Observatory 45 and later took over the border crossing point with Turkey. Snipers targeted the civilian population and launched mortar attacks on the town and the surrounding villages.
According to eyewitness accounts, the attackers crossed the Turkish border with Syria openly passing through Turkish military barracks. According to Turkish media reports, the attackers carried their injured back to Turkey for treatment in the town of Yayladagi.
Some 670 Armenian families, the majority of the population of Kessab, were evacuated by the local Armenian community leadership to safer areas in neighboring Basit and Latakia. Ten to fifteen families with relations too elderly to move were either unable to leave or chose to stay in their homes.
On Saturday, March 22, Syrian troops launched a counteroffensive in an attempt to regain the border crossing point, eye-witnesses and state media reported. However, on Sunday, March 23, the extremist groups once again entered the town of Kessab, took the remaining Armenian families hostage, desecrated the town’s three Armenian churches, pillaging local residences and occupying the town and surrounding villages.
Located in the northwestern corner of Syria, near the border with Turkey, Kessab had, until very recently, evaded major battles in the Syrian conflict. The local Armenian population had increased in recent years with the city serving as safe-haven for those fleeing from the war-torn cities of Yacubiye, Rakka and Aleppo.