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BEIRUT (AFP) – Syrian Kurds made rapid advances in the north of the country Tuesday, expelling jihadists from several villages, as a gulf of mistrust between Arabs and Kurds grew, a watchdog and activists said.
Tuesday's fighting hit several villages including Yabseh, Kandal and Jalbeh, which lie in the northern province of Raqa on Syria's border with Turkey and are home to a mixture of ethnic and religious communities, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It also reported that the Kurds expelled the jihadists from Kur Hassu, Atwan, Sarej and Khirbet Alu villages in the same area, which lies near the majority Kurdish town of Cobany.
In Hasake to the east, Kurdish-jihadist fighting went into the seventh consecutive day in the Jal Agha area and other villages in the majority Kurdish province, the Observatory added.
The latest battles come a week after fighters loyal to the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG) expelled the jihadist Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) from the strategic Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain in Hasake province.
Ever since, fighting has spread from Hasakeh in northeastern Syria to several hotspots in Raqa province in the north.
At least 70, most of them jihadists, have been killed in eight consecutive days of Kurdish-jihadist fighting, said the Observatory.
"What we are seeing is the spreading of fighting between Kurds and jihadists westwards, across areas that are home to both Arab and Kurdish communities," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Though the fighting is between jihadists and organised Kurdish forces, there is "a growing gulf between Kurdish and Arab residents of these areas," Abdel Rahman said.
"The battle is morphing from a fight between the YPG and the jihadists to a struggle between Kurds and Arabs as a whole."
Prior to the outbreak of the 2011 revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, the Kurds suffered for decades from marginalisation and oppression at the hands of the Syrian regime.
When the revolt erupted, one of the first measures taken by Assad was to grant the Syrian nationality to Kurds who had up until then been deprived of this right.
Then, starting mid-2012, Assad's forces withdrew from Kurdish regions which now are run by local Kurdish councils.
The Kurds, who represent about 15 percent of the Syrian population, have since walked a fine line, trying to avoid antagonising either the regime or the rebels.
But as abuses by jihadist groups in areas that have fallen out of Assad's control mounted, the Kurds announced they would seek a temporary autonomous state and establish a constitution.
The speedy developments have brought to the surface a deep-seated mistrust that has been heightened by the Syrian opposition's failure to adequately represent Kurdish groups, activists say.
"There hasn't been real trust at the political level since the start" of the revolt, Syrian Kurdish activist Havidar told AFP via the Internet.
"We (Kurds) all stood by the revolution but unfortunately the Syrian opposition... has played games with the Kurds... and marginalised them," Havidar said.
As a consequence, "there is a very obvious divide now" between Kurds and Arabs, he said.