BEIRUT — After weeks of setbacks, militants from the Islamic State group launched swift counteroffensives Thursday on predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, killing and wounding dozens and setting off car bombs, activists and officials said.
The two-pronged attack on the northeastern city of Hassakeh and the border town of Kobani came two days after an Islamic State spokesman acknowledged that the group might lose some battles but would not be defeated. The spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, had urged militants to strike back at their foes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and “shake the ground beneath them.”
The early morning assault by IS captured part of Hassakeh, which has long been divided between Syrian Kurds and the military forces of President Bashar Assad.
The militants also hit Kobani, a northern town on Syria’s border with Turkey that had become a symbol of Kurdish resistance against the Islamic State extremists. The Kurdish forces, backed by a campaign of U.S.-led airstrikes, drove the militants from Kobani and surrounding villages in January.
Thursday’s fighting in Kobani killed 35 civilians and Kurdish fighters, and 14 extremists, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It was the first time in six months the militants, who set off three car bombs, had managed to enter the town, the group said.
The IS militants, wearing Syrian rebel uniforms and carrying flags of the mainstream Free Syrian Army to deceive the Kurdish defenders, launched their attack from areas to the south and west of Kobani, said Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Ghalia Nehme, a commander with the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, told The Associated Press by telephone from Kobani that its fighters were defending a position in the town.
Another Kurdish official in Kobani, Idriss Naasan, said the fighting was intense in the morning but sporadic at midday.
“We hear cracks of gunfire every now and then,” Naasan said around noon, adding that he had heard explosions of unknown origin.
Kobani-based activist Mustafa Bali said in the evening that IS fighters were still in the city and held several buildings, but that YPG fighters were trying to surround them. He said some IS militants were using civilians as human shields.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Twitter that four people were killed and 96 people had been wounded in Kobani.
A suicide bomber detonated his car near the border gate, according to two Turkish officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Surveillance video seen by the AP showed a fiery explosion around dawn.
Syrian state TV said the extremists crossed into Kobani from Turkey, but Kurtulmus dismissed such allegations as untrue, according to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency.
IS fighters entered the village of Barkh Botan near Kobani, opening fire on civilians and killing 20 people, the Observatory said. Syria’s state news agency SANA said 22 people were killed, including women and children.
The differing casualty figures from Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian sources could not be reconciled in the immediate aftermath of the violence.
Natasha Underhill, an expert on Middle East terrorism from Britain’s Nottingham Trent University, said the re-entry of Islamic State forces in Kobani “comes as a warning to the strength of the group.”
What some may consider a victory over IS in Kobani could actually be an effort by the group to withdraw and develop a different strategy, she added.
A year ago, the Islamic State group captured large parts of Syria and Iraq and subsequently declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory under its control. A major IS attack had been widely expected during Ramadan, which began last week.
Referring to the attack on Hassakeh, Khalil said the militants struck government-held neighbourhoods on the southern edge of the city and captured some areas.
Syrian state TV reported intense clashes inside the southern neighbourhood of Nashawi, with IS fighters killing several people they captured. It said there were many casualties among the militants, including the Tunisian commander of the group.
The fighting forced many residents to flee to safer areas, activists said.
IS tried to storm Hassakeh earlier this month and reached its southern outskirts before meeting strong resistance from Syrian government troops who pushed them away.
The attacks on Hassakeh and Kobani came days after Kurdish fighters and their allies captured the Islamic State stronghold of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey and the town of Ein Issa to the south. Kurdish fighters have been advancing since January, thanks to coalition airstrikes.