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Australian Volunteer 'First Westerner' To Die Fighting IS

Ashley Kent Johnston reportedly died during a Kurdish assault on Islamic State positions near Sinjar in Iraq.

Ashley Kent Johnston reportedly died during a Kurdish assault on Islamic State positions near Sinjar in Iraq.

An Australian man reported killed fighting alongside Kurdish militias against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq is believed to be the first Westerner to have died in battle against the militant group.

Australian Kurdish Association president Gulfer Olan confirmed that the man was 28-year-old Queensland native Ashley Kent Johnston, and said he was "a hero."

Reports that an Australian national had been killed fighting IS extremists in northeastern Syria emerged on February 25, when the British-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced the death of an Australian fighting with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) near Tal Hamis in Hasakah Province.

However, other reports on February 25 said that the man's identity was unknown.

Syria and Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu tweeted on February 26 that YPG spokesman Redur Xelil had announced Johnston's death.

The Lions Of Rojava Facebook page, which is run by Westerners fighting alongside the Kurdish YPG in Syria, announced the death of Johnston in a video post on February 26. The post refers to Johnston by the Kurdish name he used in Syria, Heval Bagok Serhed.

According to the Lions Of Rojava, Johnston died during an assault by the YPG on Islamic State positions near Shingal, the Kurdish name for Sinjar in Iraq, which is across the border from Hasakah Province.

Johnston had been in a squad of eight YPG fighters who had pushed on against Islamic State positions despite being "massively outnumbered and outgunned" by the militants.

The Lions of Rojava said Johnston had been a "fearless and exceptional soldier as well as a great man." The group's Facebook page also posted a photo tribute to Johnston, which included images of the Australian fighter in uniform.

Australia's Fairfax Media spoke to a Kurdish translator, Sabry Omar, who said he saw Johnston in a hospital in Iraqi Kurdistan last month, after he had sustained eye injuries when a suicide bomber in a car exploded near him.

"I am sure he must have been a professional soldier in Australia from his level of experience," Omar told Fairfax Media.

There are a number of Westerners fighting with the Kurdish YPG and Peshmerga in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.

One of them, U.S. Army veteran Jordan Matson, told RFE/RL in November that he joined the YPG to fight against IS after seeing news reports of the militants' brutal assaults against Christians and minorities in Iraq's Mosul.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena