BAGHDAD -- Sunni militants captured a key northern Iraqi town along the highway to Syria early on Monday, compounding the woes of Iraq's Shiite-led government a week after it lost a vast swath of territory to the insurgents in the country's north.
The town of Tal Afar, with a population of some 200,000 people, was taken just before dawn, Mayor Abdulal Abdoul told The Associated Press.
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The town's ethnic mix of mostly ethnic Shiite and Sunni Turkomen raises the grim specter of large-scale atrocities by Sunni militants from the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), who already claim to have killed hundreds of Shiites in areas they captured last week.
Tal Afar's capture comes a week after Sunni militants took Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in a lightning offensive that has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops.
A resident in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, confirmed the town's fall and said over the telephone that militants in pickup trucks mounted with machineguns and flying black jihadi banners were roaming the streets as gunfire rang out.
The local security force left the town before dawn, said Hadeer al-Abadi, who spoke to the AP as he prepared to head out of town with his family. Local tribesmen who continued to fight later surrendered to the militants, he said.
"Residents are gripped by fear and most of them have already left the town for areas held by Kurdish security forces," al-Abadi said.
Tal Afar is only 93 miles from the border with Syria, where ISIS is fighting against President Bashar Assad's government and controls territory abutting the Iraqi border.
Fighting in Tal Afar began on Sunday, with Iraqi government officials saying that ISIS fighters were firing rockets seized from military arms depots in the Mosul area.
- The Associated Press
First published June 16 2014, 4:36 AM