A German national who joined Kurdish militias in Syria has been killed while fighting against the Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) group in the north-eastern province of Hasaka. The People's Protection Units (YPG) said Gunter Helsten died during clashes near the strategic town of al-Shadadi, which was captured by Kurdish forces earlier in February.
His death was confirmed by monitoring groups. "A German fighter in YPG was killed with three other fighters from YPG during clashes and bombardment between IS and SDF," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said, referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group including the YPG and other militias.
Macer Gifford, a British YPG volunteer, said Helsten was killed by sniper fire while helping an injured man. "I'm told from a reliable source that he died bravely," the former City trader wrote on Facebook. "There was a massive gun battle and when one of his comrades was injured he ran forwards to help him. Sadly, while treating his fallen comrade he was hit by a sniper."
Kurdish supporters hailed the 55-year-old, who had taken up the nom de guerre of Rustem Cudi since his arrival in Syria, as a hero and paid tribute to him online.
The German became the seventh Westerner killed while fighting for the YPG. Two fellow Germans, one American, one Briton, two Australians and a Canadian citizen had previously shared the same fate. A YPG statement online suggested that Helsten joined the group during the siege of Kobane after a 30-year military career in the German and French armies.
Kurdish forces backed by US air strikes ousted IS from al-Shadadi at the end of a three-day major offensive in the area last week. On 23 February the jihadi militants launched a counteroffensive to retake the town but were repelled, although clashes were still ongoing in the area, according to Alan Semo, a UK-based representative for the YPG's political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
"They attempted to come back but were defeated," he told IBTimes UK, adding Kurdish forces would work to consolidate their hold in the area in the coming days. The liberation of al-Shadadi carries a strategic blow to IS for the town lays on a vital supply route connecting its de facto Syrian and Iraqi capitals of Raqqa and Mosul.
"If it's cut off IS will be isolated in Iraq," Semo said, adding the victory could serve as a springboard for an operation to retake Mosul in partnership with Iraqi forces. "I think the next step is Mosul," he said.