Crowds of flag-waving Kurds greeted Iraqi peshmerga forces travelling through Turkey Wednesday to join rebel fighters reinforcing the Syrian town of Kobane against an attack by the Islamic State group.
Flashing victory signs, the fighters, armed with machineguns, heavy artillery and rocket launchers, received a euphoric welcome from Turkish Kurds who lined the road shouting “Long live peshmerga!”
Another group of several dozen peshmerga flew into the Turkish city of Sanliurfa from Iraq.
Escorted by Turkish armoured vehicles, they boarded buses and headed toward the border to wait for the overland convoy.
Separately, dozens of rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) crossed from Turkey to Kobane, officials said, to help Kurdish militia who have faced an onslaught by IS jihadists for more than six weeks.
The coordinator of the US-led coalition against IS voiced confidence that the peshmerga reinforcements would stop the jihadists capturing the town.
“We don’t think Kobane is about to fall in the hands of ISIS,” retired US general John Allen told Al-Arabiya television, using an alternative acronym for IS.
“The entrance of peshmerga fighters will prevent that.”
Kobane has become a symbol of the battle against IS, an extremist Sunni Muslim group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq, committing atrocities and declaring an Islamic “caliphate”.
In Iraq, IS militants executed more than 40 members of a tribe that recently fought against them in the troubled province of Anbar, a local leader and other sources said Wednesday.
Images posted online of the purported aftermath showed more than 30 men in civilian clothes lying in the middle of a blood-stained street as young men and children look on.
Iraqi security forces, Shiite militias and some Sunni tribesmen are fighting to push IS back, but have made only limited local progress so far.
– Kobane child hostages released –
IS fighters meanwhile released 25 Kurdish schoolchildren from Kobane, the last of a group of 153 they kidnapped in May, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said.
The children, most aged between 13 and 15, had been taken hostage as they were travelling home after sitting exams in Syria’s main northern city of Aleppo.
Under heavy pressure from the United States, Turkey announced last week it would allow fighters from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region to travel through its territory to join the fight for Kobane in Syria.
Iraqi Kurdish officials said up to 200 fighters would be sent.
The town’s Kurdish defenders have been helped by weapon drops and intensified US-led air strikes against jihadists but until now they have received little in the way of reinforcement.
Turkey has been wary of giving support to the Kurdish militia in Kobane because of its links to insurgents in southeast Turkey, pushing for Syrian rebel reinforcements instead.
A local Turkish official told AFP that a group of 150 FSA fighters had entered Kobane from Turkey overnight, although a senior Syrian Kurdish official, Newaf Khalil, gave a lower figure of 50.
Khalil said they were equipped with light arms and machineguns.
Washington welcomed the prospect of FSA reinforcements.
“We welcome the support they would provide to Kobane’s defence,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
US warplanes carried out eight strikes near Kobane on Tuesday and Wednesday that targeted vehicles, a building and several IS fighting positions, as well as new strikes in Iraq, the military said.
US cargo planes also parachuted aid to a beleaguered Sunni tribe in Anbar province, the Pentagon said.
– IS assault on oil field –
The Observatory said IS jihadists in Syria had attacked an oil and gas field held by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, killing 30 pro-regime gunmen and security guards.
IS was in control of parts of the Shaer field in Homs province, the Observatory said, adding that an unknown number of jihadists were also killed in the assault on Tuesday.
Fighting continued in the area on Wednesday, as pro-government Syrian media reported that IS had seized control of two oil wells and a hill.
IS has targeted oil and gas facilities in Iraq and Syria as it seeks funds for its fight to seize territory.
Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and pro-government fighters are gathering for an assault on the strategic jihadist-held northern town of Baiji, officers said on Wednesday.
“Iraqi forces are massing at the town of Baiji, preparing to enter the town and regain control of it,” said Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, who heads the provincial military command.
Baiji lies on the main highway to Iraq’s IS-controlled second city Mosul and the assault could open the way to breaking a months-old jihadist siege of government forces defending Iraq’s largest oil refinery, which is located near the town.
The refinery has come under repeated attack by IS.