21 dead in Turkey as tensions boil over Kobani crisis

Kurds rise up against government for inaction against Islamic State on southern border

An injured Kurdish protester is carried after clashes with riot police in Diyarbakir, Turkey, yesterday. Photograph: Sertac Kayar/Reuters

Islamic State fighters launched a renewed assault on the Syrian city of Kobani last night as at least 21 people were killed in riots in neighbouring Turkey where Kurds rose up against the government for doing nothing to protect their kin.

Heavily outgunned defenders said Islamic State militants had pushed into two districts of the mainly Kurdish border city late yesterday, despite US-led air strikes that the Pentagon acknowledged would probably not be enough to safeguard the town.

In Turkey, street battles raged between Kurdish protesters and police across the mainly Kurdish southeast, in Istanbul and in Ankara, as fallout from war in Syria and Iraq threatened to unravel the Nato member's delicate Kurdish peace process. The street violence was the worst Turkey has seen in years.

Washington said last night that the US military and partner nations carried out eight air strikes against Islamic State fighters near Kobani, which it said was still under the control of Kurdish militia.

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“US Central Command continues to monitor the situation in Kobani closely. Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out against Isil,” the Pentagon statement said, using another acronym for Islamic State.

Central Command added that the strikes, in which Jordan took part, destroyed several Islamic State targets, including five armed vehicles, a supply depot, a command-and-control compound, a logistics compound and eight occupied barracks. The US also launched three strikes against Islamic State in Iraq.

But Kobani remained under intense bombardment from Islamic State emplacements within sight of Turkish tanks at the nearby frontier that have so far done nothing to help.

"Tonight, [Islamic State] has entered two districts with heavy weapons including tanks. Civilians may have died because there are very intense clashes," Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish group defending the area, told Reuters from inside the town.

US officials were quoted voicing impatience with the Turks, Washington’s most powerful ally in the area, for refusing to join the coalition against Islamic State fighters who have seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq.

“There’s no question the US government thinks Turkey can do more, should do more, and that they are using excuses not to do more,” said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have been sending that message very clearly behind the scenes.”

Analysts and US officials said Turkey’s hesitance to commit its military, Nato’s second-largest, to save Kobani reflected a fear of emboldening and empowering its own Kurdish population, which has long sought greater autonomy.

Turkey says it could join only if Washington agrees to use force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Sunni Muslim jihadists fighting him in a three-year-old civil war.

Turkey's Kurds, who make up the majority in the southeast of the country, say President Tayyip Erdogan is stalling while their brethren are killed in Kobani.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon yesterday to disperse demonstrators who burned cars and tyres. Authorities imposed curfews in at least five provinces, the first time such measures have been used widely since the early 1990s.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara that 19 people were killed and 145 wounded in riots across Turkey, vowing that Turkey's own peace process with Kurdish separatists would not be wrecked by "vandalism". Dogan news agency later said the death toll had climbed to 21.

At least 10 people died in clashes in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey’s southeast. An all-day curfew there from Tuesday night was extended for another day yesterday. Pockets of protesters defying the curfew clashed with security forces there.

Others died in clashes between protesters and police in the eastern provinces of Mus, Siirt and Batman. Thirty people were wounded in Istanbul, including eight police officers.

Disturbances spread to other countries with Kurdish and Turkish populations. Police in Germany said 14 people were hurt in clashes there between Kurds and radical Islamists.

The unrest in Turkey exposes the difficulty Washington has faced in building a coalition to fight Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, two countries with complex, multi-sided civil wars in which every country in the region has a stake.

Reuters