Kurds gain ground but not control in struggle for Syrian border town

By Rasha Elass and Hamdi Istanbullu

By Rasha Elass and Hamdi Istanbullu

BEIRUT/MURSITPINAR Turkey (Reuters) - Syrian Kurds backed by fighters from northern Iraq have gained ground towards breaking the siege of the Syrian border town of Kobani but are drawing heavy fire from Islamic State insurgents and have yet to win back control.

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, or "those who face death", arrived with armoured vehicles and artillery more than a week ago to try to repulse a more than month-old siege that has tested a U.S.-led coalition's ability to halt the Islamist insurgents.

Known in Arabic as Ayn al-Arab, the town is among a few areas in civil war-ridden Syria where the coalition can coordinate air strikes against Islamic State with operations by an effective ground force.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fierce overnight clashes between Kurdish and Islamic State forces along Kobani's southern front, combined with heavy artillery fire by peshmerga, yield new gains for the Kurds.

The Observatory quoted sources around Kobani as saying the radical Sunni Muslim insurgents had been surprised by the resilience of the Kurdish forces and that the battle for the town had killed hundreds of Islamic State combatants.

Kurdish forces have retaken some villages around Kobani but a Reuters correspondent on the Turkish side of the border said the front lines in the town itself appeared little changed, with the insurgents still controlling its eastern part.

Mortar bombs launched from Islamic State positions hit the center of town on Tuesday and there were exchanges of machinegun fire as jets flew overhead. The Observatory said coalition planes launched three air strikes south of Kobani overnight.

Idris Nassan, a local official in Kobani, estimated that Islamic State now controlled less than 20 percent of the town and that heavy artillery salvoes by peshmerga had helped the Kurds to advance to the south and east.

Peshmerga fighters, positioned on a hill on the western side of the town, launched rockets at a building where Islamic State had raised its black flag, according to a Reuters witness.

A video on YouTube distributed by Islamic State supporters showed fighters purportedly in Syria's northern province of Raqqa promising to reinforce Kobani.

"God's servants have prepared the explosives and bombs ... We are coming with the sword and the Koran ... We tell our brothers in (Kobani) that we’re coming to support you," one of the insurgents said in the video.

(Additional reporting by Osman Orsal in Mursitpinar; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)