Middle East

Islamic State crisis: Syria rebel forces boost Kobane defence

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Media captionSome 80 vehicles carrying heavy weapons and Iraqi Kurdish fighters crossed into Turkey after dawn, as Jim Muir reports

A group of Syrian Arab rebels has arrived in Kobane to help defend the northern border town against Islamic State (IS) militants, sources inside the town have told the BBC.

Between 50 and 200 Free Syrian Army rebels entered the town overnight.

The news came as about 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters arrived in Turkey on their way to the town.

Syrian Kurds have been under siege in Kobane for six weeks, aided by US-led coalition air strikes.

The US said it launched eight air strikes near the town on Tuesday and Wednesday, destroying five IS fighting positions and six IS vehicles.

The battle has emerged as a major test of whether the air campaign can push back IS, but the defenders - thought to number between 1,000 and 2,000 - say they also need heavy weapons to defeat the militants.

Separately, IS militants took control of parts of an oil and gas field in Shaer in central Syria's Homs province, killing 30 members of pro-government forces, activists from the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and government sources reported.

Analysis: Jim Muir, BBC News, Beirut, Lebanon

The arrival of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq, and of Arab rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), reflects a determination by the US-led anti-IS coalition not to let Kobane fall.

Turkey, America's Nato ally which controls access to Kobani, won't let Syrian or other Kurdish volunteers cross to join the struggle with the Kurdish defenders of Kobane. It regards the latter - the YPG or People's Defence Units - as terrorists, being an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish PKK movement.

But Ankara has been under big pressure to allow some kind of reinforcements, to avoid a symbolic defeat of the coalition effort at Kobane.

Turkey has a close relationship with the Iraqi Kurdish KDP, the predominant faction in Iraqi Kurdistan, and with the FSA groups it is allowing to cross.

Their impact may take some time to be felt, but the arrival of the heavier weaponry brought by the Iraqi Kurds may have an effect greater than the numbers of fighters involved, who will play a support role rather than front-line combat.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Fighting in and around Kobane has been going on for six weeks
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some 80 vehicles carrying heavy weapons and Iraqi Kurdish fighters crossed into Turkey after dawn
Image copyright AFP
Image caption They were welcomed by Turkish Kurds as they drove west towards Kobane
Image copyright AFP
Image caption They will meet up with another group who arrived by air overnight

An FSA commander in Kobane, Col Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, told BBC Arabic that "around 200 fighters" had entered the besieged town to provide support to the defenders.

He implied that more were ready to go, saying this was the first group and "we can't let all fighters in one go".

However, Kobane's Kurdish military commander Ocalan Isso said that less than 50 FSA fighters had arrived in the town.

Relations between the Syrian rebel groups and the main Syrian Kurdish parties have long been strained. The Kurds avoided taking sides after the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

SOHR activists also gave the number of FSA fighters who entered Kobane as about 50.

Meanwhile a group of Peshmerga fighters landed in the early hours of Wednesday at Sanliurfa airport in south-eastern Turkey and are now reportedly at an army base in Suruc, some 16km (10 miles) from Kobane.

Just after dawn, a convoy of lorries carrying weapons and more fighters crossed by land through the Habur border crossing further east and are now driving towards Suruc.

The two groups are expected to meet later on Wednesday before crossing the border into Syria.

Weeks of air strikes in and around Kobane have allowed YPG fighters to prevent it from falling. But clashes continued on Tuesday and a local Kurdish commander said IS still controlled 40% of the town.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has rejected claims that not enough was being done to end the jihadist assault.

He told the BBC that Turkey would only take part once the US-led coalition against IS had an "integrated strategy" that included action against Mr Assad's forces.

Media captionTurkey PM Ahmet Davutoglu: 'We will help coalition forces'

He also noted that Western states were not prepared to send troops.

"The only way to help Kobane, since other countries don't want to use ground troops, is sending some peace-oriented or moderate troops to Kobane. What are they? Peshmerga... and Free Syrian Army," he added.

US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that America would "certainly encourage'' the deployment of Peshmerga forces to Kobane.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Turkey agreed last week to allow the Peshmerga to pass through its territory to defend Kobane
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Peshmerga are bringing heavy weapons Syrian Kurdish fighters say are desperately needed
Image copyright AP
Image caption More than 800 people are believed to have been killed in the six-week battle for Kobane

Activists say the battle for Kobane has so far left 800 people dead and forced more than 200,000 people to flee across the Turkish border.

IS has declared the formation of a caliphate in the large swathes of Syria and Iraq it has seized since 2013.

The UN says that millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict have had an "enormous" impact on neighbouring countries in terms of "economics, public services, the social fabric of communities and the welfare of families".

More than three million Syrians have fled their country since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011, with most of them now sheltering in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.