Coalition hits Islamic State as jihadists push into key border town

Islamist fighters seize eastern districts of Syrian city of Kobani as fighting spreads to south and west; Kurdish official pleads for international aid

Islamic State (IS) militants (Rear) stand next to an IS flag atop a hill in the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobani by the Kurds, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border, with Turkish troops in foreground, in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on October 6, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/ARIS MESSINIS)
Islamic State (IS) militants (Rear) stand next to an IS flag atop a hill in the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobani by the Kurds, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border, with Turkish troops in foreground, in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on October 6, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/ARIS MESSINIS)

MURSITPINAR, Turkey — Fresh airstrikes by the US-led coalition on Tuesday hit positions held by Islamic State jihadists in the southwest of the key Syrian border town of Kobani, according to an AFP journalist just across the border in Turkey.

The strikes came a day after the extremists pushed into Kobani, seizing three districts in the city’s east after fierce street battles with its Kurdish defenders.

On Tuesday, the fighting had spread to new areas in the south and west, a monitor said.

However with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters seeking to halt the IS advance, a Kurdish flag could still be seen flying from a roof in the center of the town, the correspondent said.

“There were lots of clashes last night between YPG and IS,” Idris Nahsen, a Kurdish official still in Kobani, told AFP by telephone.

The IS jihadists “are in the east side of the city. They are trying hard to capture the city. But there is resistance from YPG fighters which stopped their progress Monday and last night,” he said.

The US-led coalition airstrikes, which continued in the night and the morning, are “helping but are not enough,” he added, calling for arms and ammunition to be supplied to the Kurdish fighters.

He said the Kurds were in contact with both the US-led coalition and Turkey in search of more assistance.

“We need help from the international community. Either we finish them or they will finish us,” he said.

Hours after the militants had raised two of their Islamic State group’s black flags on the outskirts of Kobani, the militants punctured the Kurdish front lines and advanced into the town itself, the Local Coordination Committees activist collective and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Observatory said the jihadists were meanwhile able to capture several buildings on the southern edge of Kobani as well as a hospital under construction on the western side.

“They’re fighting inside the city. Hundreds of civilians have left,” said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. “The Islamic State controls three neighborhoods on the eastern side of Kobani. They are trying to enter the town from the southwest as well.”

The center of the town was still in Kurdish hands, Abdurrahman said. Kurdish officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also reported coalition airstrikes on the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

Since it began its offensive in mid-September, the Islamic State group has barrelled through one Kurdish village after another as it closed in on its main target — the town of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab. The assault has forced some 160,000 Syrians to flee and put a strain on Kurdish forces, who have struggled to hold off the extremists even with the aid of limited US-led airstrikes.

Capturing Kobani would give the Islamic State group, which already rules a huge stretch of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, a direct link between its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east. It would also crush a lingering pocket of resistance and give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border.

After initially setting up positions to the east, south and west of the town, the Islamic State group shelled Kobani for days to try to loosen up the defenses. Just across the frontier in Turkey, the steady thud of artillery, sharp crackle of gunfire and plumes of smoke rising over the rooftops testified to the intensity of the fight all day Monday.

“ISIS is advancing further toward Kobani day by day,” said Ismet Sheikh Hassan, the defense chief for Kurdish forces in the area, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. “ISIS is fighting with tanks and heavy weapons and they are firing randomly at Kobani. There are many civilian casualties because of the shelling.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 20 Islamic State fighters managed to sneak into the eastern part of Kobani overnight, but were ambushed and killed by Kurdish militiamen.

Syrian Kurdish forces have long been among the most effective adversaries of the Islamic State group, keeping the extremists out of the Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria even as the militants routed the armed forces of both Syria and neighboring Iraq.

But in recent weeks the overstretched Kurds have struggled to counter the increasingly well-armed militants, who have been strengthened by heavy weapons looted from captured Syrian and Iraqi military bases.

As fighting raged Monday within sight of the Turkish border, the country’s defense minister said the NATO alliance had drawn up a strategy to defend Turkey, a NATO member, if it is attacked along its frontier with Syria. The NATO move came at Turkey’s request, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said.

Turkey has warily watched the fight for Kobani unfold. On Monday, at least 14 Turkish tanks took up defensive positions on a hilltop on Turkish soil near the beseiged town, while a shell from the fighting struck a house and a grocery store inside Turkey, but no one was wounded.

Monday’s heavy clashes followed a particularly bloody Sunday, when more than 45 fighters on both sides were killed, according to the Observatory and a statement from the Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

The dead included a Kurdish female fighter who blew herself up, killing 10 jihadists,said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. A YPG statement identified the suicide attacker as Deilar Kanj Khamis, better known by her military name, Arin Mirkan.

Khamis was a member of the Women’s Protection Units, a branch of the main Kurdish militia. The force has more than 10,000 female fighters who have played a major role in the battles against the Islamic State group, said Nasser Haj Mansour, a defense official in Syria’s Kurdish region.

Haj Mansour said that after Kurdish fighters were forced Sunday to withdraw from a strategic hill south of Kobani, Khamis stayed behind, and as the Islamic State fighters moved in she attacked them with gunfire and grenades, eventually blowing herself up. The Kurds then recaptured the position.

“If necessary, all our female and male fighters will become Arin. The attacks by mercenaries of (the Islamic State group) against Kobani will not be allowed to achieve their goals,” the YPG statement said.

Syria’s Kurds have been lobbying for greater support from the international community to help them in their fight against the Islamic State militants. While the US-led coalition has carried out some airstrikes against militant positions around Kobani, those strikes have failed to blunt the extremists’ advance.

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