KARACA Turkey (Reuters) - Islamic State fighters edged towards a strategic town on northern Syria’s border with Turkey on Friday, battling Kurdish forces and sending at least two shells into Turkish territory, witnesses said.
Islamic State launched an offensive to try to capture the border town of Kobani more than a week ago, besieging it from three sides. More than 140,000 Kurds have fled the town and surrounding villages since last Friday, crossing into Turkey.
The Sunni insurgents appeared to have taken control of a hill from where fighters of the YPG, the main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, had been attacking them in recent days, 10 km (6 miles) west of Kobani, a Reuters correspondent said.
Booms of artillery and bursts of machinegun fire echoed across the border, and at least two shells hit a vineyard on the Turkish side. There were no immediate reports of casualties in Turkey and paramilitary police arrived to inspect the site.
“We’re afraid. We’re taking the car and leaving today,” said vineyard owner Huseyin Turkmen, 60, as small arms fire rang out in the Syrian hills just to the south.
Kurdish forces said on Thursday they had pushed back the advance on Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, by Islamic State fighters but appealed for U.S.-led air strikes to target the insurgents’ tanks and heavy armaments.
“The clashes are moving between east, west and south of Kobani ... The three sides are active,” Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister for the Kobani canton, said by phone from the center of the town.
“They are trying hard to reach Kobani. There is resistance here by YPG, by Kobani and some volunteers from north Kurdistan -- Turkish Kurds -- who are coming to share in the efforts of Kobani. They have made a strong response,” he said.
Kobani’s strategic location has been blocking the Islamic State fighters from consolidating their gains in northern Syria. The group tried to take the town in July but was repulsed by local forces backed by Kurdish fighters from Turkey.
“EVERYONE IS ARMED”
“If they did come inside Kobani, everyone here is armed, they are armed and resisting. Even me, I am the deputy foreign minister here in Kobani canton but I am an armed man too. I am ready to defend Kobani,” Nassan told Reuters.
“Every girl, every young man, every man who is able to fight, to carry a gun, they armed and they are ready to defend and fight.”
Turkey has been slow to respond to calls for a coalition to fight Islamic State in Syria, worried in part about links between Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group which waged a three-decade campaign against the Turkish state for greater Kurdish rights.
The PKK has called on Turkey’s Kurds to join the fight to defend Kobani and accused Ankara of supporting Islamic State. Residents in the border area say hundreds of youths have done so, although Turkish security forces have been trying to keep them from crossing the frontier.
Turkey strongly denies it has given any form of support to the Islamist militants but Western countries say its open borders during Syria’s three-year-old civil war allowed Islamic State and other radical groups to grow in power.
The Turkish military has in the past fired back when shells from Syria’s civil war strayed into Turkish territory, and the intensifying battle for Kobani is heightening pressure on Ankara to take a more robust stance against the insurgents.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Beirut; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Andrew Roche