Islamic State ‘have taken 40%’ of Kobani, says monitor group

At least 10 killed in Turkey in clashes over government’s stance on Syrian Kurds

 

Islamic State fighters advanced deeper into the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border today, taking almost complete control of an area where the local Kurdish administration is based, a group monitoring the violence reported.

“They have taken at least 40 per cent [of the city],” Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said by telephone.

Islamic State (IS) fighters were now in almost complete control of the “security quarter”, home to the administrative buildings used by the local government, he said.

A Kurdish military official speaking from Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, said there was fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish fighters next to a building used by Kurdish internal security forces, but denied any major advance by the group.

Ocalan Iso, deputy head of the Kurdish forces, said Islamic State was still bombarding the town centre with mortars, showing its fighters had not extended their control over more than 20 percent of the town. “There are fierce clashes and they are bombing the centre of Kobani from afar,” he said by telephone.

Earlier the US-led coalition had intensified its aerial bombardment of IS positions in the Syrian border town of Kobani as the extremist group fought street battles with Kurdish forces and reportedly rushed in reinforcements.

The battle for the city near the frontier with Turkey has emerged as a major early test for the air campaign aimed at rolling back and eventually destroying the extremist group.

It has also strained ties between Washington and Ankara over the long-term US strategy in Syria. The US special envoy for the coalition, retired marine general John Allen, and Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg are in Turkey to press the country to join military operations.

Meanwhile at least 10 people died in eastern Turkey when gunmen opened fire on police, and Kurds angry over a siege by Islamist militants on their ethnic kin in Syria clashed with other groups in the country’s sixth largest city, local media said today.

At least 25 people were killed earlier in the week as violence erupted during pro-Kobani demonstrations in towns and cities across the country.

A Turkish police chief and a policeman were seriously injured and two officers killed yesterday after unidentified gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons as they inspected shops damaged during troubles earlier in the week in the eastern province of Bingol, according to Dogan News Agency.

Turkish officials have said while they do not want Kobani to fall, they will not take on a greater role until the coalition outlines a broader strategy that also includes attacking Syrian president Bashar Assad, who is best positioned to benefit from any roll-back of the Islamic State group.

But attacking Assad’s regime “is not the focus of our international coalition and not the focus of our efforts by the United States”, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

She said Gen Allen and Turkish officials discussed ways to advance the effort against IS and said a joint military planning team would visit Ankara early next week.

“Both sides also agreed that we will continue a dynamic and deepening bilateral consultation process across the multiple lines of effort against Isil, including military support, countering foreign fighters, counter-finance, humanitarian assistance, and delegitimising Isil’s messaging and rhetoric”, she said, using an acronym for IS.

Turkey has also called for the creation of a buffer zone inside Syria to secure the border, but the White House and Pentagon said the US was not considering that option. Such a zone would be costly and complex to enforce.

US officials said the US is largely talking to Turkey about other things it could do besides inserting ground forces into the fight: allowing US and coalition aircraft to fly over Turkish territory; allowing its air base in Incirlik, 160km from the Syrian border, to be used by US or coalition planes or for logistics and training; and equipping moderate Syrian opposition forces fighting to topple Assad.

The fight for Kobani has brought Syria’s civil war yet again to Turkey’s doorstep and for weeks the US and its allies have pressed Ankara to take a more robust role in the coalition. In addition, Kurds have held massive demonstrations across Turkey in which they accuse the government, which has deployed its tanks just across the frontier, of doing nothing to save the city.

Ankara is suspicious of the Syrian Kurdish forces fighting in Kobani, seeing them as an extension of the Kurdish PKK, which waged a long and bloody uprising against Turkey.

Responding to the criticism, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it was unrealistic to expect Turkey to launch a ground war against IS on its own.

He spoke at a news conference in Ankara with Mr Stoltenberg, who said there was no easy solution for Kobani.

“Isil poses a grave threat to the Iraqi people, to the Syrian people, to the wider region, and to Nato nations,” Mr Stoltenberg said. “So it is important that the whole international community stays united in this long-term effort.”

Mr Cavusoglu said Turkey was prepared to play a bigger part once a deal was reached with the coalition. “Turkey will not hold back from carrying out its role,” he said.

US secretary of state John Kerry and Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu have spoken at least twice this week.

In Kobani, columns of smoke rose as warplanes buzzed overhead. Two strong explosions - apparently from an air strike - echoed from the edge of the town, a cluster of low-slung concrete buildings nestled in rolling hills.

The crackle of gunfire and blasts could be heard from the Turkish side, where people watched the fighting unfold from a stretch of farmland.

The coalition air strikes have forced some IS militants out of Kobani.

The US Central Command said five air strikes south of Kobani since Wednesday had destroyed an IS support building and two vehicles, and damaged a training camp. The strikes also hit two groups of IS fighters, it said.

“Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out against Isil,” it said.

But the Pentagon has said the town may yet fall to the extremists because air power alone cannot prevent it.

Despite the air strikes, the IS fighters managed to capture a police station in the east of Kobani, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It said 11 IS fighters were killed, adding that Kurdish fighters captured four jihadis. The station was later struck by coalition jets.

The observatory, which relies on activists across Syria, said Kurdish forces surrounded the jihadists near the station and that heavy fighting was under way.

It said the militants had seized more than a third of Kobani, but Kurdish officials disputed that, saying their forces had recaptured several parts of the town.

“I can confirm that they don’t control a third of the city. There is only a small part of Kobani under the control of Daesh,” said local official Idriss Nassan, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Both Mr Nassan and the observatory said more than 20 air strikes were conducted in the area since Wednesday afternoon.

IS militants launched their offensive on Kobani in mid-September, capturing several nearby Kurdish villages and steadily strengthening their control around the town. The fighting has forced at least 200,000 residents to flee over the frontier into Turkey.

The observatory’s chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said more than 500 people had been killed in and around Kobani since the fighting began. He said the Islamic State group was rushing in reinforcements, indicating the extremists also view Kobani as a test of will.

Press Association/Reuters