MURSITPINAR, Turkey – Islamic State fighters backed by tanks and artillery pushed into an embattled Syrian town on the border with Turkey on Monday, touching off heavy street battles with the town’s Kurdish defenders.
Hours after the militants raised two of their Islamic State group’s black flags on the outskirts of Kobani, the militants punctured the Kurdish front lines and advanced into the town itself, the Local Coordination Committees activist collective and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“They’re fighting inside the city. Hundreds of civilians have left,” Observatory Director Rami Abdurrahman said. “The Islamic State controls three neighborhoods on the eastern side of Kobani. They are trying to enter the town from the southwest as well.”
The center of the town was still in Kurdish hands, Abdurrahman said. Kurdish officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Since it began its offensive in mid-September, the Islamic State group has barreled through one Kurdish village after another as it closed in on its main target – the town of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab. The assault has forced about 160,000 Syrians to flee and put a strain on Kurdish forces, who have struggled to hold off the extremists even with the aid of limited U.S.-led airstrikes.
Capturing Kobani would give the Islamic State group, which already rules a huge stretch of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, a direct link between its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east. It also would crush a lingering pocket of resistance and give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border.
After initially setting up positions to the east, south and west of the town, the Islamic State group shelled Kobani for days to try to loosen up the defenses. Just across the frontier in Turkey, the steady thud of artillery, sharp crackle of gunfire and plumes of smoke rising over the rooftops testified to the intensity of the fight all day Monday.
“ISIS is advancing further toward Kobani day by day,” said Ismet Sheikh Hassan, the defense chief for Kurdish forces in the area, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. “ISIS is fighting with tanks and heavy weapons and they are firing randomly at Kobani. There are many civilian casualties because of the shelling.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 20 Islamic State fighters managed to sneak into the eastern part of Kobani overnight but were ambushed and killed by Kurdish militiamen.
Syrian Kurdish forces long have been among the most effective adversaries of the Islamic State group, keeping the extremists out of the Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria even as the militants routed the armed forces of both Syria and neighboring Iraq.
But in recent weeks, the overstretched Kurds have struggled to counter the increasingly well-armed militants, who have been strengthened by heavy weapons looted from captured Syrian and Iraqi military bases.
As fighting raged Monday within sight of the Turkish border, the country’s defense minister said the NATO alliance had drawn up a strategy to defend Turkey, a NATO member, if it is attacked along its frontier with Syria. The NATO move came at Turkey’s request, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said.
Turkey has warily watched the fight for Kobani unfold. On Monday, at least 14 Turkish tanks took up defensive positions on a hilltop on Turkish soil near the besieged town, while a shell from the fighting struck a house and a grocery store inside Turkey.
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