Oct 8, 2014 10:29 AM

Airstrikes push jihadists back in Syrian town

The Associated Press

MURSITPINAR, Turkey (AP) New U.S.-led airstrikes near the Syrian border town of Kobani have helped Kurdish fighters push back the Islamic State group a day after it appeared on the verge of seizing the town, the fate of which has emerged as a key test of whether coalition air power can roll back the extremist group.

The new wave of airstrikes came as several Syrian human rights groups called on the world to save the embattled town from falling into the hands of the Islamic State group, whose fighters have broken through Kurdish defenders' front lines and entered parts of the town over the last two days.

The U.S.-led coalition has launched a series of strikes aimed at preventing the extremist group from seizing Kobani. An activist group said the strikes killed at least 45 Islamic State militants since late Monday, forcing the group to withdraw from parts of the town.

"The airstrikes have helped. They were good strikes but not as effective as we want them to be," said Idriss Nassan, deputy head of Kobani's foreign relations committee. "Kobani is still in danger and the airstrikes should intensify in order to remove the danger."

"They (militants) have retreated inside the city because of the airstrikes and because of the ambushes that members of the People's Protection Units carried out, killing many of Daesh's fighters," he said, referring to the main Syrian Kurdish militia and using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Over the past few days thousands of Islamic State fighters armed with heavy weapons looted from captured army bases in Iraq and Syria managed to push into parts of the town, which is located on the Syria-Turkish border and is also known by the Arabic name of Ayn Arab.

The Islamic State group has tightened the noose around Kobani since mid-September, when it launched a blitz in which it captured several nearby Kurdish villages and brought Syria's civil war yet again to Turkey's doorstep.

The fighting has forced at least 200,000 town residents and villagers from the area to flee across the nearby frontier into Turkey. Activists say more than 400 people have been killed in the fighting.

Around noon Wednesday, warplanes believed to be from the U.S.-led coalition bombed Islamic State positions near Kobani. One airstrike, visible from the border, struck a hill and an open space near the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday's strikes targeted Islamic State fighters east of Kobani.

The U.S. Central Command said in a statement that several airstrikes were launched near Kobani since Tuesday. It said four airstrikes south of Kobani destroyed an Islamic State group armored personnel carrier, an artillery piece and three armed vehicles, damaging a fourth. It said a fifth airstrike destroyed an armed vehicle and a sixth destroyed an artillery piece.

Since Monday night, the strikes have killed 45 Islamic State fighters in and around Kobani, targeting 20 separate locations and destroying at least five of their vehicles, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria.

The airstrikes also forced Islamic State fighters to withdraw from several streets they had controlled earlier, the Observatory added.

The group said that an Islamic State suicide attacker set off a truck bomb in the town's industrial neighborhood Wednesday. It had no immediate word on casualties.

Meanwhile, an attack apparently carried out by Kurdish fighters inside the town destroyed a mosque minaret, which the Islamic State group had used as an outlook, activists said.

Heavy gunfire was heard from inside the town in a sign of fresh clashes Wednesday.

The advances by the Kurdish fighters came a day after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the town was about to fall and that the aerial campaign alone would not be able to save it.

Turkish ground forces and tanks have been stationed along the border since the fighting began but have not intervened. Turkey has long distrusted the People's Protection Units, known as the YPG, viewing them as an extension of the Kurdish PKK, which waged a long and bloody insurgency against Ankara.

Turkey has said it does not want the town to fall. It has encouraged the U.S. to set up a no-fly zone and a humanitarian corridor, as well as ramp up assistance to Syrian rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The rebels also distrust the YPG, which they allege has conspired with Assad, allegations the Kurdish fighters deny.

Several Syrian human rights groups meanwhile called on the world to save Kobani.

In their appeal, the seven rights groups including the Kurdish Organization for Human Rights and the Human Rights Organization in Syria said the Islamic State assault on Kobani and its "inhuman practices and measures have taken a clear form of persecution and ethnic cleansing."

The statement said that the fighting has displaced nearly 280,000 people who fled fearing "killings, executions, throat slitting, beheadings, mayhem and kidnapping of women and children."

The Islamic State group has conquered vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, declaring a self-styled caliphate governed by its strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah. The militants have massacred captured Syrian and Iraqi troops, terrorized minorities and beheaded two American journalists and two British aid workers.

Last week, Islamic State fighters also beheaded nine Kurdish fighters, including three women, captured in clashes around Kobani.

On Wednesday, a Kurdish activist said he was detained by Turkish authorities along with 157 residents from Kobani and other activists shortly after they crossed into Turkey three days ago. Mustafa Bali said the detainees include 33 women and nine children.

Bali said the activists were to escort Kurdish civilians to safety in Turkey and then cross back.

"They allowed us to cross and once we were in Turkey they detained us," Bali said, speaking to The Associated Press over the phone from a school in the Turkish border village of Ali Kor.


Mroue reported from Beirut.


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