United States-led airstrikes on Wednesday pushed Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters back to the edges of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobane, which the group had appeared set to seize after a three-week assault, Kurdish officials in the town said.
The town has become the focus of international attention since ISIL’s advance drove 180,000 of the area's mostly Kurdish inhabitants to flee into adjoining Turkey, which has infuriated its own restive Kurdish minority by refusing to intervene.
At least nine people were killed in demonstrations across Turkey overnight, as Kurds demanding the government save Kobane clashed with police in several major cities.
ISIL hoisted its black flag on the eastern edge of the Syrian border town on Monday. Since then, though, airstrikes against the group by a U.S.-led coalition that includes Gulf states have redoubled.
Around noon Wednesday, warplanes bombed ISIL positions near Kobane, including one strike, visible from the border, that hit a hill and an open space near the town. Kurdish activists reported more strikes, but they could not be independently confirmed.
"[ISIL] are now outside the entrances of the city of Kobane. The shelling and bombardment was very effective and as a result of it, [ISIL] have been pushed from many positions," Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister of Kobane district, told Reuters. "This is their biggest retreat since their entry into the city, and we can consider this as the beginning of the countdown of their retreat from the area."
ISIL had been steadily advancing on the strategically important town from three sides and pounding it with artillery despite fierce resistance from heavily outgunned Kurdish forces. Defense experts said it was unlikely that the advance could be halted by air power alone.
For that reason, Kobane residents as well as Kurds in Turkey had called on Turkey to send in ground reinforcements, a step permitted by the Turkish parliament’s recent approval of intervention against “terrorist groups” in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey’s calculations are complex, however. The Kurdish political party in control of Kobane, the PYD, is allied with the Turkey-based PKK that has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government. And Turkey is wary that intervening against the ISIL insurgency will only serve to bolster the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Ankara’s foremost enemy in Syria.
Turkey said last week it will not allow Kobane to fall, but the death toll is rising. More than 400 people have been killed in the fighting, according to London-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Also Tuesday, Canada’s parliament approved a government plan to provide up to six Canadian fighter planes to the U.S.-led coalition currently striking ISIL in Iraq (but not Syria). Like the U.S., Canada has ruled out sending in ground troops.
Al Jazeera and wire services