Kobane: A first group of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters entered the besieged Syrian town of Kobani on Thursday to help push back Islamic State militants who have defied U.S. air strikes and threatened to massacre its Kurdish defenders.
Kobani, on the border with Turkey, has been encircled by the Sunni Muslim insurgents for more than 40 days. Weeks of U.S.-led air strikes have failed to break their stranglehold, and Kurds are hoping the arrival of the peshmerga will turn the tide.
The siege of Kobani - known in Arabic as Ayn al-Arab - has become a test of the U.S.-led coalition`s ability to stop Islamic State`s advance, and Washington has welcomed the peshmerga`s deployment. It has intensified its air strikes in the past two days ahead of their arrival.
A first contingent of about 10 peshmerga fighters arrived in Kobani from Turkey, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Kurdish and Turkish officials said more were expected within hours.
"That initial group, I was told, is here to carry out the planning for our strategy going forward," said Meryem Kobane, a commander with the YPG, the main Syrian Kurdish armed group defending the town.
Hemin Hawrami, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq, wrote on Twitter that the peshmerga already in Kobani were assessing where the heavy weapons would be deployed.
Around 100 peshmerga fighters arrived by plane in southeastern Turkey on Wednesday, joined later that night by a land convoy of vehicles carrying heavy weapons including a cannon and truck-mounted machine guns.
In a compound protected by Turkish security forces near the border town of Suruc, the fighters were donning combat fatigues and preparing their weapons, a Reuters correspondent said.
U.S. Central Command said U.S. forces had staged 10 air strikes on Islamic State targets near Kobani since Wednesday, hitting two small insurgent units and destroying seven fighting positions and five buildings.
MORE TROOPS POSSIBLE
Syria condemned Turkey for allowing foreign fighters and "terrorists" to enter Syria in a violation of its sovereignty. Its foreign ministry described the move as a "disgraceful act".
Turkey, which is a staunch backer of rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, dismissed the comments.
"The Syrian regime has no legitimacy. Such statements from a regime that has lost its legitimacy are astonishing," a senior Turkish government official said.
Around 200 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have also entered Kobani from Turkey to support the fight against Islamic State, according to rebel commander Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi and a second Turkish government official.
The FSA is a term covering dozens of armed groups fighting Assad but with little or not central command, and widely outgunned by Islamist insurgents elsewhere in the conflict.
Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani said he was prepared to deploy more forces to Kobani if asked.
"Whenever the situation on the ground necessitates and more forces are requested from us and there is passage for them, we will send more forces to protect Kobani and defeat terrorists in Western Kurdistan," he said.
Islamic State has caused international alarm by capturing large expanses of Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic "caliphate" that extends across the borders between the two.
Its fighters have slaughtered or driven away Shi`ite Muslims, Christians and other communities who do not share their ultra-radical brand of Sunni Islam.
In Iraq, the bodies of 220 members of a Sunni tribe captured by Islamic State this week have been found in two locations, according to security officials and witnesses.
CALL FOR PROTESTS
The United States and its allies in the coalition have made clear they do not plan to send troops to fight Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, but they need fighters on the ground to capitalise on their air strikes.
Syrian Kurds have called for the international community to provide them with heavier weapons and munitions and they have received an air drop from the United States.
But NATO member Turkey accuses Kurdish groups in Kobani of links to the militant PKK (Kurdistan Workers` Party), which has fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and is regarded as a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington and the European Union.
Ankara fears Syria`s Kurds will exploit the chaos by following their brethren in Iraq and seeking to carve out an independent state in northern Syria, emboldening PKK militants in Turkey and derailing a fragile peace process.
That has enraged Turkey`s own Kurdish minority, complicated efforts to provide aid, and meant the negotiations to enable the passage of the peshmerga were delicate and complex.