October 5, 2014 / 9:54 AM / 3 years ago

Kurds battle Islamist militants closing in on Syrian town

MURSITPINAR Turkey (Reuters) - Islamist militants attacking a Syrian border town fought some of their heaviest battles so far with Kurdish forces on Sunday, a local official said, and five people were wounded inside Turkey by a projectile fired across the frontier.

Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc, as Turkish soldiers stand guard on the Turkish side in Sanliurfa province October 5, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, is trying to seize the predominantly Kurdish border town of Kobani and has ramped up its offensive in recent days despite being targeted by U.S.-led coalition air strikes aimed at halting its progress.

On Sunday its forces battled Kurdish fighters for control of Mistanour, a strategic hill overlooking the town, and intense shelling and heavy machine gun fire were audible around Kobani, known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic.

“The situation in Kobani has been bad in the past three days and today is the worst,” Idris Nassan said by telephone.

“The clashes are very heavy, there is bomb shelling, they are trying hard to get inside the city of Kobani. The YPG is responding strongly,” he said, referring to Kurdish forces.

He said the Islamic State fighters were only one kilometer (half a mile) away to the south east of the town.

Just across the border from Kobani, at least five people were wounded in a Turkish village close to the Mursitpinar crossing when a projectile from the fighting slammed into a house, witnesses said.

Turkish territory has repeatedly been hit by stray fire since the Kobani fighting erupted more than two weeks ago and Turkey has vowed to defend its borders. But up until now it has been reluctant to intervene against Islamic State.

Witnesses said the five victims, all from the same family, did not appear to be critically wounded. On Saturday a Turkish special forces officer was also lightly wounded by shrapnel, the media and local sources reported.

A translator with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) inside Kobani said Islamic State forces were hitting Mistanor hill with tank and mortar fire as they tried to seize high ground from which they could dominate the streets below.

Kurdish forces had so far checked the advance, Parwer Mohammed Ali told Reuters, adding that there had been fresh airstrikes on Islamic State positions overnight. “They struck three or four times in the vicinity of Mistanour hill,” he said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said at least 11 Kurdish fighters and 16 Islamic State insurgents were killed in the overnight clashes.

IRAQI TOWN RECAPTURED

The United States and its Western and Arab allies have carried out air strikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and neighboring Iraq, where the Sunni Islamist group swept through huge areas of Sunni Muslim northern provinces in June.

Iraqi security officials and witnesses said on Sunday that Islamic State fighters seized back half of Dhuluiya, 70 km (45 miles) north of Baghdad, just a day after Iraqi military forces recaptured the town on the banks of the river Tigris.

Despite the U.S.-led military intervention, a military stalemate exists in Iraq, with territory regularly switching hands between the Iraqi government and Islamic State.

In Syria, Islamic State launched its new offensive to capture Kobani two weeks ago. It has seized hundreds of villages around the town, forcing 180,000 people to flee into Turkey.

Families have taken up residence in muddy fields, abandoned shops, parks and mosques, adding to Turkey’s mounting humanitarian crisis, which has seen refugee numbers in the whole country swell to 1.5 million since the Syrian war began.

“We fled in fear and now we are stranded here with no work and little money. We are too ashamed to ask for help,” said Anwar Shehnebi, 43, a teacher and farmer with eight children.

Speaking in the Turkish town of Suruc, 10 km from the border, Shehnebi said Islamic State had seized vehicles from civilians, threatening the livelihood of farmers.

“(Islamic State) has nothing to do with Islam. The Arabs don’t like them but they are scared of them,” he said.

Kurds have called for help from Turkey and more U.S-led raids but cooperation is complicated by Syrian Kurds’ ties to the PKK -- deemed a terrorist group by many Western states.

Turkish military patrols were visible west of Kobani on Sunday but there was no sign of significant troop movements. Tanks which earlier in the week had been deployed along the frontier had returned to their base.

On Saturday Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan vowed to act if Turkish soldiers were targeted by Islamic State in Syria but dampened speculation of intervening at Kobani, likening Kurds defending the town to the radical Islamist insurgents.

Western and Turkish officials also cite concerns about the Syrian Kurds’ ambiguous relationship with President Bashar al-Assad, who has mostly left the Kurds to their own devices while focusing firepower on insurgents fighting to unseat him. The Syrian Kurds have denied cooperating with Assad.

GOVERNMENT BATTLES INSURGENTS

Further west in Syria, government warplanes bombed towns in the countryside north of Aleppo, which the Syrian military is seeking to recapture from a mix of insurgent groups.

Last week the Syrian army made a new advance on Aleppo, seizing three villages north of the city and threatening rebel supply lines in a potentially major reversal.

Assad’s army has intensified an offensive in the heavily-populated western areas of Syria as U.S.-led warplanes concentrate on areas in the north and east -- Islamic State areas which Damascus sees as less important.

Clashes took place between the Syrian army and Islamic State around Kowaires military airbase in Aleppo, the Observatory said, after Syrian warplanes carried out raids around it.

In the industrial city of Sheikh Najjar, northeast of Aleppo, Islamist groups including al Qaeda’s Nusra Front fought with government forces backed by pro-Assad militias and fighters from Shi‘ite Lebanese group Hezbollah, the Observatory said.

Elsewhere in Syria insurgent forces made ground. Nusra Front and other Islamist groups captured a hilltop in southwest Syria from government forces on Sunday after two days of battles, the Observatory and pro-insurgent Twitter feeds reported.

The capture of al-Hara hill, close to the Israeli frontier, gives the Islamist insurgents the highest vantage point in the Deraa province and is a major blow to the Syrian military, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory.

Additional reporting by Umit Bektas in Mursitpinar, Sylvia Westall in Beirut and Jonny Hogg in Ankara; Editing by Dominic Evans

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