By Humeyra Pamuk and Tom Perry
The United States and its allies have dramatically stepped up air strikes in the past two days near the frontline Syrian town of Kobani, where Kurdish defenders said they had given the Americans target coordinates to try to halt an Islamic State advance.
The US-led military coalition said it had bombed Islamic State targets in and around Kobani nearly 40 times in the space of 48 hours, around triple the pace of last week.
A four-week siege of the mainly Kurdish town on the border with Turkey has become a focus of the U.S.-led effort to halt the militants, who have seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. The United Nations has warned that a massacre could take place in the town if it falls to militants, who now control nearly half of it after pushing their way inside last week.
A US-led alliance has been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq since August and extended the campaign to Syria in September. After weeks in which Kobani was rarely targeted, the town has become the main focus of strikes.
In the two 24-hour periods since Monday, the US military reported 21 and 18 strikes on militant targets in or near the town. Last week it typically struck the area just six or seven times per day.
A monitoring group said the strikes had also become more effective, killing at least 32 Islamic State fighters in direct hits this week.
Kurdish officials said the main Kurdish armed group, the YPG, had begun giving the coordinates of Islamic State positions to the US-led alliance.
“The senior people in YPG tell the coalition the location of ISIL targets and they hit accordingly,” YPG spokesman Polat Can told Reuters, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“Some of (the militants) have withdrawn, but they regroup and return. But because the air strikes are working in coordination, they hit their targets well,” he said.
He did not disclose how the YPG fighters were sharing the coordinates.
SPOTTERS AND DRONES
Tim Ripley, a British expert with Jane’s Defence Weekly, said US air controllers responsible for picking targets could check any information provided by YPG fighters by also using spotters watching the fighting from across the frontier in Turkey, as well as video relayed by aerial drones.
Ripley said it was also possible that US target spotters could be operating alongside the YPG on the ground in Kobani, but unlikely, because of the high risk to the operation if they were injured or captured.
The Kurdish YPG fighters have been struggling to defend Kobani from better armed Islamic State fighters who have used tanks, artillery and suicide truck bombs.
Kobani appeared close to falling a week ago as Islamic State fighters entered its eastern and southern districts and flew their black flag. As recently as Saturday, Kurdish leaders were calling for the air strikes to be stepped up.
In recent days, as the air strikes have increased, the militants have made little progress. The Kurds say they have taken back areas on the west of the town.
US President Barack Obama voiced deep concern on Tuesday about the situation in Kobani as well as in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of Baghdad, which US troops fought to secure during the Iraq war.
The intensified air campaign around Kobani has lifted the spirits of Kurds who have maintained a vigil watching the fighting from a hilltop just over the border in Turkey.
Dozens cheered as a powerful air strike hit eastern Kobani on Wednesday afternoon, sending up a plume of smoke.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war using a network of sources on the ground, said one of the allied air strikes in the last day had killed a group of Islamic State fighters just 50 metres from a Kurdish position.
MORE SERIOUS THAN BEFORE
Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said seven Islamic State fighters had been killed in clashes with the Kurds on Wednesday, along with five Kurdish fighters.
“(The air strikes) are more serious than before because the coordination has grown in the last six days,” Abdulrahman said.
The town’s plight has angered Kurds across the border in Turkey, who accuse the Turkish government of doing too little to help protect their kin in a battle that has unfolded within view of Turkish tanks at the frontier.
Turkey has taken in 200,000 refugees from the area but has rejected the Syrian Kurds’ request to open a land corridor so they can resupply the besieged town with arms and fighters from other parts of northern Syria.
U.S. officials have warned against expecting too much of air power, saying the town could still fall, and that the main aim is to degrade Islamic State’s capabilities, rather than protect particular towns in what is expected to be a long conflict.
Abdulrahman Gok, a journalist inside Kobani, said the latest air strikes had allowed the YPG to make some gains.
“Following the air strikes, I went to the last safe point in eastern side of the city. Some buildings that had been occupied by IS fighters were empty,” he said. “On the west, YPG destroyed a vehicle that belonged to IS and killed the militants inside.”
Anger at Turkish policy triggered riots among Turkey’s 15 million Kurds last week in which at least 35 people were killed.
The main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, has close ties to the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish party that has waged a militant campaign for Kurdish rights and has threatened to abandon a peace process with Turkey in response to the Kobani crisis.
The PKK accused Turkey on Tuesday of breaking a two-year-old ceasefire by bombing its positions. Turkey says it fired back after PKK fighters attacked a security post.