Iraqi Peshmerga fighters bring hope to Syria's Kobane

AFP , Saturday 1 Nov 2014

Peshmerga fighters
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters celebrate atop an army vehicle as they move towards the Syrian town of Kobani from the border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province. (Photo: Reuters)

Iraqi peshmerga fighters prepared Saturday to join the fight against jihadists for the Syrian border town of Kobane, lifting hopes among residents of a turning point in the highly symbolic battle.

The roughly 150 Iraqi fighters, many of them chanting "Kobane", received a hero's welcome as they crossed the frontier from Turkey late Friday to join fellow Kurds trying to repel the Islamic State (IS) group.

The peshmerga "are making preparations, deploying weapons, getting to know the area", Polat Can, a spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), said Saturday.

"The artillery and heavy weapons they have will play a good role," he told AFP by telephone.

The town has become a key battleground whose capture would be a major prize for the jihadists, giving them unbroken control of a long stretch of Syria's border with Turkey.

Kobane's defenders have been pleading for reinforcements, and the peshmerga armed with automatic weapons and rocket launchers travelled through Turkey to Syria from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

They stood atop their pick-ups, waving to onlookers and brandishing their rifles in the air as they headed for the frontier.

"People definitely feel optimism about the arrival of the peshmerga. People have been calling me to discuss when we might be able to go home," said Kobane activist Mustafa Ebdi, speaking from across the border in Turkey.

Ankara also allowed dozens of lightly armed Free Syrian Army rebels to cross into Kobane this week.

But the sense of hope was also tinged with caution about how much difference 150 fighters could make in a standoff involving thousands of fighters.

"Some people think the battle will be over very quickly, but I think it will still be long," Ebdi said.

Intense fighting erupted late Friday and continued during the night as Kurdish fighters fended off a new IS attack in the north of the town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

About 3,000-4,000 jihadists -- backed by tanks -- are fighting in Kobane against about 1,500-2,000 members of the YPG, according to Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

Fierce clashes in and around Kobane have killed about 100 IS fighters in the past three days, according to the Britain-based monitoring group, which relies on a wide network of sources inside Syria.

The Observatory said 958 people had been killed since IS launched an assault on Kobane in mid-September -- 576 IS jihadists, 361 Kurdish fighters and 21 civilians.

IS has seized large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq for a self-proclaimed "caliphate", imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law.

The United States, along with European and Arab allies, has conducted daily air raids against the group.

The US military reported five air strikes against IS near Kobane on Friday and Saturday, while coalition warplanes carried out five raids in Iraq.

In Turkey, thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday for an international day of solidarity with Kobane.

At least 15,000 people marched in the largest Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, while around 1,000 pro-Kurdish supporters turned out in central Istanbul.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed more than 180,000 people and forced millions from their homes since it began three and a half years ago as an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

US hopes of creating and training a moderate rebel force as a counterweight to jihadists and Assad's forces suffered a blow after Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants drove rebels of the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front from their bastion in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The Al-Nusra Front jihadist group captured the village of Deir Sinbel and seized arms and tanks from the SRF, the Observatory said Saturday after 24 hours of combat.

In Iraq, government forces Friday attacked the strategic jihadist-held town of Baiji, which has been out of Baghdad's control for months, regaining control of two areas, army officers said.

The UN said violence in Iraq killed at least 1,273 people during October, including 856 civilians.

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