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Jihadists fight for control of key Syria town

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Jihadists waged fierce street battles Tuesday with Kurdish militia backed by US-led air strikes in a Syrian border town whose fall would mark a major victory for the Islamic State group.

With the fight for Kobane entering a crucial phase, the IS jihadists fought to extend their foothold into new areas in the south and west of the town, a day after piercing its Kurdish defences.

Gunfire was heard from the other side of the Turkish border, while a Kurdish flag was seen flying in the centre of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, according to an AFP journalist at the frontier.

Fresh US-led air strikes targeted IS positions in the southwest of the town.

Kobane is seen as a strategic prize whose capture would give IS a long stretch of the border with Turkey for its self-proclaimed "Islamic caliphate", which already spans large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The IS jihadists "are trying hard to capture the city," Idris Nahsen, a Kurdish official still in Kobane, told AFP by telephone.

He said they were meeting resistance from the Kurdish People's Protection Units.

The Kurds have repeatedly called for increased foreign military support to stop Kobane falling to IS, an extremist Sunni Muslim group.

"We need help from the international community," Nahsen said. "Either we finish them (IS) or they will finish us."

At least 34 IS jihadists and 16 Kurdish fighters were killed in fighting in Kobane on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

IS fighters have seized a number of buildings in the south and west of Kobane, including a hospital under construction, according to the Britain-based monitoring group.

Kurdish fighters have ordered civilians to evacuate the town, after the jihadists planted their black flags on its eastern side and entered Kobane on Monday.

- 'Fight to last person' -

The Kurdish fighters are optimistic that their knowledge of the town's layout will compensate for their light weapons, said local activist Mustafa Ebdi.

"They are fighting to defend their town and they say they will fight to the last person," he said.

Ebdi said the latest US air raids had little effect.

"The strikes hit the Mishtenur area," he said, referring to a plateau south of Kobane.

"But they (IS) aren't gathered there. There are other places they should be hitting," he said.

In a sign of mounting desperation, a Kurdish female fighter blew herself up at an IS position east of Kobane on Sunday, the Observatory said.

It was the first reported instance of a female Kurdish fighter employing a tactic often used by the jihadists, said the monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside war-ravaged Syria for its reports.

IS jihadists began advancing on Kobane three weeks ago, quickly capturing a string of villages surrounding the town and prompting some 186,000 residents to flee across the Turkish border.

An official in the Turkish town of Suruc said Tuesday that 700 people, including 47 wounded, had crossed the border from Syria overnight, both civilians and Kurdish combatants.

Seven dead bodies were also carried across the frontier.

Turkey last week won parliamentary approval for military intervention against IS in Syria and Iraq, but it has yet to announce any plans for military action despite the advance of the jihadists to its doorstep.

- Plea for mercy -

IS has been accused of carrying out widespread atrocities, including mass executions, abductions, torture and forcing women into slavery.

The jihadists sparked fresh outrage at the weekend with the release of a video showing the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning.

The video -- the latest in a series of on-camera murders of Western hostages -- also included a threat to another hostage, US aid worker Peter Kassig.

His parents have issued a video plea for their son's release, urging his captors to show mercy towards the 26-year-old former US soldier who has converted to Islam.

After first launching strikes against IS in Iraq in August, Washington has built a coalition of allies to wage an air campaign against the group.

On Monday, officials said the US military has started flying attack helicopters against the jihadists in Iraq for the first time, marking an escalation in the air war that puts American troops at higher risk.

In all, nearly 2,000 air raids have been launched by the coalition in both Iraq and Syria, US defence officials said.

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