US-led airstrikes continued to hit Islamic State (IS) targets around the Syrian border city of Kobane on Friday as local officials and activists reported that Kurdish forces had begun to push the jihadists back.
Loud explosions accompanied runs by low flying jets in what appeared to be airstrikes to the west of the city. There were also blasts on its eastern edge abutting the Turkish border, while heavy machine gun and small arms fire echoed across the frontier.
Reports suggested that IS forces had been driven back to the city's outskirts by the aerial bombardment and advances by the Kurdish YPG fighters who are battling to save it.
"Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out" against IS, the US Pentagon said in a statement on Thursday night.
Throughout Thursday, jets circled over Kobane as clouds of black smoke rose from a series of large explosions, predominantly on Mistenur Hill, which overlooks the town from the south-east and from lower ground to the west. Regular heavy machine gun and small arms fire was audible from the Turkish side of the border and mortar strikes visible in built up central areas.
Turkish and Syrian Kurds watching the battle unfold told VICE News there had been a number of airstrikes starting from around 5am local time and focused on Mistenur. US Central Command later said in a statement that American bomber aircraft had launched nine attacks around the town during the day, destroying buildings, a tank and hitting a number of units.
The battle for Kobane, also known by its Arabic name Ayn al-Arab, has been fought within sight of the Turkish border since IS launched a major offensive last month. IS militants have advanced steadily since then and finally moved into the town itself on Monday, raising the group's black flag on a number of neighborhoods. It would be a major prize for IS and allow the extremist group to connect territory held in the Syrian province of Aleppo with its stronghold of Raqqa further east. It would also destroy the threat to their rear posed by the Kurds and give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish border, aiding the passage of fighters and oil in and out of the country.
The US and the UK both warned on Thursday that airstrikes alone would not be enough to prevent the fall of Kobane to IS and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that IS was now in control of over one- third of the city and that clashes had continued to the southwest, west, east and northeast.
However, Idris Nassam a senior Kobane official told VICE News in a phone call from the town that fighting to the west had pushed IS back significantly and that Kurdish YPG forces had regained some ground to the east too.
Mustafa Ebdi a journalist and activist from Kobane gave VICE News a similar account, reporting that YPG units were advancing on IS positions and regained control of a number of areas, although in the town's eastern corner, the battle had degenerated into house to house street fighting.
The airstrikes had been useful, he said, noting that he would like to see closer coordination between the YPG and US-led anti-IS coalition conducting the attacks. "I wish there was a solid connection between them so they can hit targets in a more exact way."
He added that the YPG units fighting on the ground had been aided by Syrian rebel brigades, including Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa, Jarablus Brigade and Jabhat al-Akrad, all of which are members of the Burkan al-Forat (Euphrates Volcano) "operations room" of Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), Islamic Front (IF) and Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliated Syrian armed groups, which was formed last month to take on IS.
Turkish security forces have now restricted all access to the border, but crowds of Syrian and Turkish Kurds waited in the fields as close to Kobane as it was possible to get with food, water, tea urns and blankets watching the fighting through binoculars and telescopes. Most told VICE News that they would not leave until Kobane was saved from IS. Some were former residents watching their town burn, others had travelled from far away to support its displaced residents. Ahmad, 50, a Kurd originally from Iran, who declined to give his surname, told VICE News that he had travelled from his home in Shepherd's Bush, London, where he works as a nurse, to help provide medical help to the stream of injured being treated at the overwhelmed hospital in nearby Suruç. "I don't like politics, but I'm here for the people," he said.
Nearby, Serdar Karan, a Syrian Kurd, told VICE News that further airstrikes would be needed to save Kobane and appealed for European countries, particularly France and the UK, to hit IS targets in the region. Both countries are taking part in raids on IS targets in iraq, but have, for now, ruled out attacks in Syria.
"There are hundreds of French and British militants in IS," he said, referring to the group's large proportion of foreign fighters. "Their governments have to help, it's their responsibility."
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