September 26, 2014 / 12:37 PM / 3 years ago

Islamic State tightens grip on Syrian border town; shells hit Turkey

Kurdish Syrian refugees and Turkish protestors pull down a part of the Turkish-Syrian border fence, near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province September 26, 2014. Nearly 140,000 Syrian Kurds have fled into Turkey since last week, the fastest exodus of the entire three-year civil war. REUTERS/Murad

KARACA Turkey (Reuters) - Islamic State fighters tightened their siege of the strategic town of Kobani on Syria’s border with Turkey on Friday, pushing back Kurdish forces and sending shells into Turkish territory, witnesses said.

The Sunni Muslim insurgents, who launched their assault on Kobani more than a week ago, besieging it from three sides, took control of high ground to the west of the town and a village to the east in fierce fighting.

More than 140,000 Kurds have fled Kobani and surrounding villages since last Friday, crossing into Turkey. The U.N. refugee agency has said the entire 400,000 population of the town could flee.

Kurds watching the fighting west of Kobani from hills on the Turkish side of the border -- Syrian refugees and Turks among them -- said they feared an imminent Islamic State assault on the town and called for U.S.-led air strikes on the insurgents.

“After here it’s flat to Kobani. It’ll be easy (for them),” said one Turkish Kurd who gave his name as Mohammed.

“Where is America, where is England, why are people not helping?” said another villager, Ali.

The siege of Kobani has fueled Kurdish anger not just at the Sunni insurgents but also against the Turkish state. Kurdish militants fought a three-decade insurgency for greater rights in southeast Turkey, and many Kurds accuse Ankara of supporting the Islamist insurgents against their ethnic kin.

Several hundred unarmed protesters who had gathered on the Turkish side of the border in solidarity with the Syrian Kurds at one point broke through a barbed wire fence and rushed towards Kobani in an apparent bid to help defend it.

The group, including pro-Kurdish politicians from Turkey, later gathered on a railway line on the Syrian side of the border, clashing with Turkish security forces who fired tear gas and were initially reluctant to let them back in.

U.S.-led air strikes have targeted Islamic State fighters elsewhere in Syria but some Kurdish military officials have said they made the situation in Kobani more precarious by pushing the Sunni insurgents towards the Turkish border.

SHELLING AND GUNFIRE

Islamic State fighters appeared to have taken control of a hill 10 km (6 miles) west of Kobani from where the YPG, the main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, had been attacking them in recent days.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said Islamic State fighters had also taken control of a village around 7 km to the east of Kobani.

“We’re not sure how many people are left in Kobani, but the safe area is shrinking,” said Carol Batchelor, Turkey representative for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

The boom of artillery and bursts of machinegun fire echoed across the border. Two shells hit a vineyard on the Turkish side, though there were no immediate reports of casualties.

“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.

Turkey has so far declined to take a frontline role in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State but strongly denies the Kurdish accusations that it is supporting the insurgents, saying they pose a grave threat to its national security.

President Tayyip Erdogan, returning from the U.N. meetings in New York, repeated his call for a buffer zone on the border inside Syrian territory, a safe haven for refugees he envisages would be protected by an internationally-policed no-fly zone.

“The steps that need to be taken from now on should make sure that the same disasters do not happen again but also ... help secure our borders,” he told reporters in Istanbul.

Kurdish forces said on Thursday they had pushed back the advance on Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, but appealed for air strikes on the insurgents’ tanks and heavy weapons.

“The clashes are moving between east, west and south of Kobani ... The three sides are active,” Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister in the Kobani canton’s Kurdish administration, 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 sits on a road linking northern and northwestern Syria, and Kurdish control of the town has prevented Islamic State from consolidating its gains. The group tried to take the town in July but was repulsed by local forces backed by Kurdish fighters from Turkey.

“EVERYONE HERE 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 are 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), which has waged a three-decade armed campaign against the Turkish state for greater rights in Turkey’s southeast.

The PKK has urged 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 crossed the frontier in defiance of Turkish security forces.

Turkey denies having given any form of support to the Islamist militants, but Western countries say its open borders during Syria’s three-year-old civil war have 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 Murad Sezer, Sylvia Westall and Alexander Dziadosz in Beirut; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Andrew Roche and Kevin Liffey

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