Hundreds of Kurdish fighters have crossed from Turkey and Iraq into neighboring Syria to defend a Kurdish area under attack by Islamic State militants, as leaders of the ethnic group appealed for international assistance in their battle against the extremists.
The movement of the Kurdish fighters into Syria reflected the ferocity of the fighting in the northern Kobani area, which borders Turkey. Militants of the extremist Islamic State group have been barreling through the area over the past three days, seizing villages and forcing at least 60,000 Syrian Kurds to flee into Turkey.
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"Kobani is facing the fiercest and most barbaric attack in its history," said official Mohammed Saleh Muslim, head of Syria's powerful Kurdish Democratic Union. The groups' members dominate the Syrian Kurdish group known as the YPK, which is fighting the Islamic State militants.
"Kobani calls on all those who defend humane and democratic values ... to stand by Kobani and support it immediately. The coming hours are decisive," he said in a message sent to reporters.
On Friday, the president of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, warned that the Islamic State group's attacks on the Kobani area in northern Syria "threaten the whole entirety of the Kurdish nation and it has targeted the honor, dignity and existence of our people."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Kurdish official Nawaf Khalil said that fighters were streaming into the Kobani area from Turkey. The Observatory, which obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground, estimated their numbers in the hundreds.
A military official in Iraq's northern Kurdish region said some 600 fighters also crossed from there into Syria, heading toward Kobani. The fighters belonged to the PKK, a Kurdish movement that waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey. The PKK is based in Turkey, but they have a base in the Qandil mountains in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
"The PKK entered early this morning and they headed to Kobani," said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.
Ethnic Kurds dominate a mountainous region that straddles Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Kurds had successful campaign
Syrian Kurdish fighters had been successfully fighting off the militants for the past two years. They even clashed with the Islamic State group's fighters in northern Iraq, carving a safe passage for thousands of embattled Iraqis of the Yazidi minority, whom the militant group sees as apostates.
But the tide changed in September. Islamic State group fighters, using weapons and armor seized from Iraqi soldiers who fled the militants' advance in June, are now sweeping through the Kobani area.
As the fighting continued, Khalil said Kurdish fighters had evacuated several other villages preemptively to ensure the safety of residents. More than 60,000 Syrian Kurds had crossed into Turkey since Friday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said.
"Some of our brothers are being placed with their relatives, some are being taken to local schools and state facilities, others are being hosted in tents," Kurtulmus said.
The battle over Kobani is part of a long-running fight between the Islamic State group and Syria's Kurds that has raged across a band of Syrian territory stretching along the Turkish border from the north to the far northeast, where large numbers of Kurds live. The clashes are one aspect of Syria's broader civil war — a multilayered conflict that the UN says has killed more than 190,000.
The effort to engage Western countries in the crisis unravelling in the Kobani area is part of a diplomatic push by Kurds, who are seeking to align themselves with U.S.-led efforts to create an international coalition to fight the Islamic State.
But it's not clear if the U.S. would be willing to assist the Syrian Kurdish fighters. The YPK is viewed with suspicion by many Syrian rebels and their Western supporters because of perceived links to President Bashar Assad's government. That may be changing, however, as Kurdish fighters battle alongside some Syrian rebel groups against the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria.
NATO member Turkey is also wary of the group, which it believes is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement. Turkey has so far been cool to any international coalition to fight the Islamic State group, but if Western countries are seen publicly arming the Syrian Kurds, it would likely destroy any hopes of cajoling the Turkish government into cooperating.