BEIRUT (AP) — Fighting raged into the night Friday between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants in the Syrian border town of Kobani, as reports mounted that at least 120 civilians, including women and children, have been killed by the extremist group since it launched a new offensive on the strategic town the previous day.
The fighting came amid deadly terror attacks across continents — from shootings in a Tunisian beach resort, to an attack on a U.S.-owned factory in France and a suicide bombing by an Islamic State affiliate at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait that killed at least 27 worshippers — all following the IS group’s call for violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said some 120 civilians were killed by IS fighters since Thursday in Kobani, describing the killings as a “massacre.” It gave no details, but Kobani-based activist Mustafa Bali told The Associated Press that as many as 142 were killed, mostly civilians shot dead in cold blood, and 183 were wounded. At least 40 IS militants were also killed, their bodies left unclaimed on the town’s streets, said Bali.
IS militants remained fortified in buildings in several districts of this northern Syrian town on the Turkish-Syrian border, he added. They were holding hostages in three locations, he said. A fourth location, a restaurant, was stormed by Kurdish fighters who freed the hostages and killed several IS fighters earlier in the day, Bali said.
Also Friday, a suicide car bombing targeted a security building in the northeastern town of Hassakeh, which also came under a surprise IS attack on Thursday. The Syrian news agency said there were casualties, without giving a figure, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 troops were killed and the building was badly damaged.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the Hassakeh bombing, which bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group.
The surprise twin attacks on Kobani and Hassakeh came after the Islamic State group suffered a series of setbacks over the past two weeks, including the loss of the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad — one of the group’s main points for the transfer of foreign fighters and supplies.
Kobani has become a symbol of Kurdish resistance after the town. Backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, the town’s defenders endured a months-long siege by the Islamic State before they broke the siege and drove the IS forces out.
Kurdish officials said IS militants wearing Syrian rebel uniforms and carrying the flags of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army sneaked into the town before dawn on Thursday as everyone slept. Just before sunrise, they set off three car bombs and quickly took up fortified positions inside buildings, they said.
“Honestly, their plan was very smart,” said Bali. “We believe they came from the north and that they had been inside the city for at least two hours before the fighting began. “
“It is evident that they are experienced fighters, but it is a suicide mission aimed at killing as many people as possible before they die,” he said.
IS fighters are now holding hostages in a house near the Mashta Nour hospital, another near the town’s cultural center and a third one close to the Mahdathe school, said the officials.
Bali said some IS snipers have also taken up positions on the roofs of buildings and were randomly firing at people on the streets below.
After the clashes in Kobani broke out, the main Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, closed the primary border crossing point between Turkey and Tal Abyad for security reasons, said YPG spokesman Redur Khalil.
Simultaneously with the attack on Kobani, IS on Thursday launched the push on Hassakeh, which is jointly controlled by Kurdish fighters and government troops, and captured parts of it.
SANA said government warplanes attacked IS positions near Hassakeh, killing and wounding dozens of militants. And the director of the Syrian Observatory, Rami Abdurrahman, told the AP on Friday that the U.S.-led coalition has stepped up airstrikes targeting IS positions in and around the town.
“Warplanes and helicopters have been attacking their (IS) hideouts since the early morning,” Hassakeh governor Mohammed Zaal al-Ali told state Syrian TV on Friday. He called on residents who fled the fighting to safer areas to return to their homes, saying that “the situation today is better than yesterday.”
“There is relative quiet in Hassakeh tonight,” Kurdish defense official Nasser Haj Mansour told the AP. He said of the town’s 20 neighborhoods, IS fighters operated in just two.
The simultaneous attacks on Kobani and Hassakeh underscores a well-known IS strategy — in June last year, the group launched a blitz, capturing large parts of both Syria and Iraq and subsequently declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory under its control. A major IS attack was widely expected during Ramadan, now in its second week.
The attacks followed an audio message by IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who urged Sunni Muslims to use the holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and piety to wage jihad and seek martyrdom.
“Blessed be the one who spends Ramadan conquering for God’s sake and lucky is the one who is selected and taken as a martyr by God during this month,” he said in the Tuesday audio message.
“You Muslims, take the initiative and rush to jihad, rise up you mujahideen everywhere, push forward and make Ramadan a month of calamities for the nonbelievers.”
Meanwhile, the pan Arabic satellite TV station Al-Jazeera reported on Friday that its cameraman Mohammed al-Assfar was killed while covering fighting between Syrian troops and rebels in the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad in March 2011.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.