Heavy fighting between Kurdish fighters, Islamic State group rages near Syrian border town

Islamic State militants heavily shelled a Kurdish town on Syria’s border with Turkey on Friday as jihadi fighters prepared an all-out offensive for the strategic site, whose capture would provide a direct link between areas under their control in Aleppo and their stronghold in Raqqa to the east.

BEIRUT — Islamic State militants heavily shelled a Kurdish town on Syria’s border with Turkey on Friday as jihadi fighters prepared an all-out offensive for the strategic site, whose capture would provide a direct link between areas under their control in Aleppo and their stronghold in Raqqa to the east.

The fighting came as Turkey’s prime minister pledged his country would do what it could to prevent the fall of Kobani, although he did not spell out what assistance Turkey would provide. Turkey’s parliament gave the government new powers Thursday to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq, and to allow foreign forces to use its territory for possible operations against the Islamic State group.

Kurdish officials and activists said that Islamic State group fighters had so far not penetrated the frontier town as fighting raged on the eve of a major Muslim holiday.

“It looks like they are going to attack tonight and try to enter (Kobani) on the day of the feast,” said Nasser Haj Mansour, a defence official in Syria’s Kurdish region, referring to the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha that begins on Saturday in most Muslim countries.

“Kurdish fighters are ready and prepared to repel any attack.”

Haj Mansour said shelling of Kobani on Friday afternoon killed three civilians.

Kobani and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. The assault, which has forced some 160,000 Syrians to flee, has left the Kurdish militiamen scrambling to repel the militants’ advance into the outskirts of the town, also known as Ayn Arab.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that some 3,000 Kurds were stuck on the Syria-Turkish border, prevented by Turkish authorities from crossing to safety.

The Observatory, which monitors Syria’s civil war, reported intense fighting Friday to the east and southeast of Kobani, where it said seven Islamic State fighters and 13 Kurdish militiamen were killed.

The assault came despite renewed U.S.-led airstrikes in the area. The United States has been bombing the Islamic State group across Syria since last week and in neighbouring Iraq since early August.

An Associated Press reporter monitoring the fighting from the Turkish border town of Suruc reported intense shelling of Kobani from the south and west. One tank moved on the edge of the town as shells landed just 500 yards (meters) from the Turkish border. Ambulances whizzed to and from the border, bringing the wounded to Turkey for treatment.

Ismet Sheikh Hassan, the Kurdish defence minister for the Kobani region, said Islamic State fighters were advancing from the east, west and southeast of Kobani, firing rockets on the town. He called on the U.S.-led coalition “to hit (militant) tanks instead of bases.”

The latest round of fighting over Kobani came after Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkey’s ATV television station late Thursday that his government “would do whatever is necessary, our utmost to prevent Kobani’s fall.”

Asked what would happen if Kobani were captured, Davutoglu said: “We would not want Kobani to fall. We have opened our arms to our brothers who have come from Kobani.”

Davutoglu did not elaborate, however a senior aide said the prime minister was not signalling imminent military intervention by Turkey, but rather support for the Kurdish militiamen battling the militants, though he did not rule out eventual Turkish military involvement in Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

On Friday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry warned Turkey that deploying troops inside its borders would be seen as an aggression, and called on the international community to “put limits to the adventures” of the Turkish leadership.

Turkey has been one of the strongest backers of Syrian opposition groups fighting to remove President Bashar Assad from power.

Asked about Davutoglu’s statement, Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s leading Kurdish Democratic Union Party, said: “How does he want to prevent the fall of Kobani and until now Turkey has done nothing.”

Khalil said Kobani is now almost empty of civilians and the situation is “very dangerous.” He said Kurdish fighters in the town “will fight until the last gunman and last gunwoman.”

Also Friday, the Observatory and Syrian state media said government forces advanced in northern Aleppo province, capturing three villages, including Handarat. The capture of the villages tightens government control of areas linking the contested city of Aleppo with other parts of the province.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, which also monitors Syria’s 3 1/2-year-old civil war, reported several airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State positions in the group’s strongholds of Raqqa and Aleppo, as well as the eastern oil-rich region of Deir el-Zour that borders Iraq.

U.S. Central Command said the coalition on Thursday and Friday continued its airstrikes, destroying an Islamic State group garrison in the northeastern province of Hassakeh and two tanks in Deir el-Zour. It said two strikes north of Raqqa hit two modular oil refineries and a militant training camp, while another strike northeast of Aleppo struck a building occupied by the Islamic State group.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Islamic State militants armed with a rocket launcher shot down an Iraqi military attack helicopter Friday, killing two pilots and raising new worries about their ability to attack aircraft amid the ongoing U.S.-led airstrikes.

The Mi-35 helicopter crashed outside the town of Beiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad and home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery, authorities said. U.S. Central Command said it carried out airstrikes in Sinjar and Fallujah over Thursday and Friday, while Canada announced it was joining the aerial campaign against the militant group in Iraq and might extend the strikes to Syria if invited by the Assad government.

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