October 22, 2014 / 4:59 PM / in 3 years

Iraqi Kurds approve sending fighters to aid Syrian town

ARBIL Iraq/MURSITPINAR Turkey (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers approved a plan on Wednesday to send fighters to the Syrian town of Kobani to relieve fellow Kurds under attack by Islamic State militants, marking the semi-autonomous region’s first military foray into Syria’s war.

Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Kobani lies on the border with Turkey, and Islamic State fighters keen to consolidate territorial gains in northern Syria have pressed an offensive against the town even as U.S.-led forces started bombing their positions.

The battle has also taken on major political significance for Turkey, where the siege has sparked protests among Kurds and threatened a peace process with Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgents, who are angry at the government for failing to aid Kobani.

Under pressure to go beyond humanitarian assistance for those fleeing the violence, Turkey said on Monday it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters, known as “peshmerga” or those who confront death, to cross its territory to reach Kobani.

Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Haji Omer said on Wednesday: “Today in parliament, we agreed to send the peshmerga forces to Kobani as soon as possible,” he said.

Iraqi Kurdish official Hemin Hawrami said on Twitter the peshmerga would be equipped with heavy weapons. That would help the besieged fighters, who say they need armor-piercing weapons to fight the better-armed Islamic State militants.

Gunshots rang out throughout the day and an air strike occurred near the center of Kobani in the early afternoon, while five Kurdish fighters were buried in the Turkish border town of Suruc to defiant speeches and Kurdish songs.

Idris Nassan, a local Kurdish official, said clashes had taken place east, southeast and southwest of Kobani.

“They (Islamic State) are always bringing more people and weapons from the surrounding areas and also from (the Syrian province of) Raqqa and Iraq. It’s obvious every time they attack,” he said.

One resident who visited Kobani and asked not to be named said Islamic State was still in control of the town center.

The pro-Islamic State Amaq News Agency released a video of fighters speaking from what they said was the center of Kobani, saying their morale was high and that they were advancing despite coalition air strikes.

SUSPICIONS

Two senior Kurdish officials said late on Tuesday that preparations were under way to send a small number of peshmerga to Kobani, known in Arabic as Ayn al-Arab, but it would take several days until the necessary arrangements were in place.

The United States said on Sunday it had air-dropped medical supplies and weapons to Kurds in Kobani provided by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a move Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan criticized on Wednesday because Islamic State fighters managed to seize some of the weapons.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday two bundles of military supplies for Kurdish fighters in Kobani went astray during an air drop earlier this week, with one destroyed later by an air strike and the other taken by Islamic State militants.

Twenty-six other bundles of supplies were dropped to Kurds in the city and reached their targets.

“There is always going to be some margin of error in these types of operations. In fact, we routinely overload these aircraft because we know some bundles may go astray,” said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

“One bundle worth of equipment is not enough equipment to give the enemy any type of advantage at all.”

Speaking at a news conference, Erdogan said he proposed the move to facilitate the passage of peshmerga fighters to Kobani in a call with U.S. President Barack Obama over the weekend.

“At first they didn’t say yes to peshmergas, but then they gave a partial yes and we said we would help,” he said.

Erdogan added that talks were continuing among officials on the details of the peshmergas’ transit. One Turkish journalist close to the government said on Wednesday 500 of them were expected to cross into Kobani this weekend.

Although Turkey’s relations with the KRG are close, officials view those defending Kobani with suspicion because of their links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist group after fighting a three-decades long insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey.

The government wants a definitive peace with the PKK, but that process has faltered in recent months, particularly as Turkey’s failure to intervene militarily in Kobani has provoked fury among many of the country’s 15 million Kurds.

MORE AIR STRIKES

The U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State, which has seized swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, continued on Wednesday as air strikes killed about 25 of the militants near the northern Iraqi city of Baiji, residents said.

U.S. Central Command said it targeted the militant group, carrying out 12 strikes near Iraq’s Mosul Dam and six others close to Kobani.

Iraqi army tanks and armored vehicles also fought off an advance by Islamic State militants on the town of Amiriya Fallujah, west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, army sources said.

Coalition air strikes killed around 25 Islamic State fighters on Wednesday near the northern Iraqi city of Baiji, residents told Reuters.

They said a series of bombings beginning in the early hours hit the town of al-Siniya, west of Baiji, a strategic city adjacent to the country’s largest refinery, part of a multinational effort to check the group’s progress.

Despite the offensive, a wave of explosions around Baghdad continued. A pair of parked car bombs targeted the capital on Wednesday night, killing 26 and injuring at least 78 people, police and medical officials said.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the country’s air force had destroyed two fighter jets reportedly operated by Islamic State militants in the north of the country.

Additional reporting by Saif Hameed in Baghdad, Oliver Holmes and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Noah Browning, Saif Hameed and Ned Parker in Baghdad, and Susan Heavey, Eric Beech, David Alexander and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Cooney

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