MURSITPINAR Turkey/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States and its allies have dramatically stepped up air strikes in the past two days near the Syrian town of Kobani, where Kurdish defenders said they had given the Americans target coordinates to try to halt an Islamic State assault.
The U.S.-led military coalition said it had bombed Islamic State targets in and around Kobani nearly 40 times in the space of 48 hours, around triple the pace of last week.
A four-week siege of the mainly Kurdish town on the border with Turkey has become a focus of the U.S.-led effort to halt the militants, who have seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. The United Nations has warned of a massacre if the town falls to the militants, who now control nearly half of it.
The coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq since August and extended the campaign to Syria in September. After weeks in which Kobani was rarely targeted, the town has become the main focus of strikes.
The Pentagon declined to confirm any coordination with the main Kurdish armed group, YPG. “I just don’t have any details to announce or speak to with respect to coordination on the ground,” U.S. Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters when asked about the report.
Kirby said the situation in Kobani was fluid but that the Pentagon believed Kurdish fighters still held the town.
In the two 24-hour periods since Monday, the U.S. military reported 21 and 18 strikes on militant targets in or near the town, which is called Ayn al-Arab in Arabic. Last week it typically struck the area just six or seven times per day.
A monitoring group said the strikes had also become more effective, killing at least 32 Islamic State fighters in direct hits this week.
Kurdish officials said the YPG had begun giving the coordinates of Islamic State positions to the U.S.-led alliance.
“The senior people in YPG tell the coalition the location of ISIL targets and they hit accordingly,” YPG spokesman Polat Can told Reuters, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“Some of (the militants) have withdrawn, but they regroup and return. But because the air strikes are working in coordination, they hit their targets well,” he said.
He did not disclose how the YPG fighters were sharing the coordinates.
John Allen, the U.S. special envoy in charge of building the international coalition against Islamic State, suggested that Washington was open to receiving information on targets from all sources. Allen was not asked and did not address whether the Syrian Kurds are giving the U.S.-led alliance such information.
“Obviously, information comes in from all different sources associated with providing local information or potentially targeting information. And we’ll take it all when it comes in. It’s ultimately evaluated for its value,” Allen told reporters in Washington.
Other U.S. officials declined comment when specifically asked about statements by Kurdish officials that the YPG had begun giving the coordinates of Islamic State positions near Kobani to the U.S.-led alliance.
Tim Ripley, a British expert with Jane’s Defence Weekly, said U.S. air controllers responsible for picking targets could check any information provided by YPG fighters by also using spotters watching the fighting from across the frontier in Turkey, as well as video relayed by drones.
The YPG forces have been struggling to defend Kobani from the better armed Islamic State fighters who have used tanks, artillery and suicide truck bombs.
Kobani appeared close to falling a week ago as Islamic State entered its eastern and southern districts and raised its black flag. As recently as Saturday, Kurdish leaders were calling for the air strikes to be stepped up.
In recent days, as the air strikes have increased, the militants have made little progress. The Kurds say they have taken back areas on the west of the town. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed deep concern on Tuesday about the situation in Kobani as well as in Iraq’s Anbar province which U.S. troops fought to secure during the Iraq war.
The intensified air campaign around Kobani has lifted the spirits of Kurds who have maintained a vigil watching the fighting from a hilltop just over the border in Turkey.
Dozens cheered as a powerful air strike hit eastern Kobani on Wednesday afternoon, sending up a plume of smoke.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war using a network of sources on the ground, said one of the allied air strikes in the last day had killed a group of Islamic State fighters just 50 metres (yards) from a Kurdish position. Another had destroyed a two-storey building used by the militants.
Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said seven Islamic State fighters had been killed in clashes with the Kurds on Wednesday, along with at least six on the Kurdish side.
“(The air strikes) are more serious than before because the coordination has grown in the last six days,” Abdulrahman said.
The town’s plight has angered Kurds across the border in Turkey, who accuse the Ankara government of doing too little to help protect their kin in a battle that has unfolded within view of Turkish tanks at the frontier. At least 35 people died in clashes last week between Turkish Kurds and the police.
Turkey has taken in 200,000 refugees from the area but has rejected the Syrian Kurds’ request to open a land corridor so they can resupply the besieged town with arms and fighters from other parts of northern Syria.
Abdulrahman Gok, a journalist inside Kobani, said the latest air strikes had allowed the YPG to make some gains.
“Following the air strikes, I went to the last safe point in eastern side of the city. Some buildings that had been occupied by IS fighters were empty,” he said. “On the west, YPG destroyed a vehicle that belonged to IS and killed the militants inside.”
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley, Phillip Stewart and Arshad Mohammed; writing by Tom Perry; editing by David Stamp and Grant McCool