(AFP) Jihadists captured the headquarters of Kurdish fighters defending the battleground Syrian town of Kobane Friday as a UN envoy warned of a looming “massacre” by the Islamic State group.
Outgunned Kurdish militia were struggling to prevent the jihadists closing off the last escape route for the thousands of civilians still in or near the town, prompting an appeal for urgent military assistance.
US-led warplanes have intensified air strikes against IS fighters who have been attacking Kobane for three weeks but the Pentagon has warned that, without a force on the ground to work with, there are limits to what can be done.
Neighbouring Turkey has so far held back from any action against the jihadists on its doorstep, despite four straight nights of protests among its own large Kurdish minority that have left 31 people dead.
The jihadists’ advance has brought the front line to just 1.3 kilometres (little more than three-quarters of a mile) from the border.
– Thousands in danger –
UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura appealed to Turkey to take any action it could to protect the 12,000 or so civilians still in or near the town, warning they “will be most likely massacred” if captured by IS fighters.
Kobane was “literally surrounded” except for one narrow entry and exit point to the Turkish border, de Mistura said.
Up to 700 mainly elderly civilians were still inside the city centre, and another 10,000-13,000 gathered nearby.
The envoy called on Turkey, “if they can, to support the deterrent actions of the coalition through whatever means from their own territory.”
The statement marked an unusual one by the United Nations, which usually strives to stay neutral in conflicts, but de Mistura explained the rare appeal by the precarious situation in the border town.
The coordinator of the US-led campaign against IS, retired US general John Allen, was to hold a second day of talks in Ankara after the NATO ally insisted it could not be expected to take ground action against the jihadists alone.
The number of coalition air strikes around Kobane has jumped from a handful previously to 28 on Wednesday and at least 14 on Thursday, according to US Central Command, which runs the air war.
– ‘No US strategy change’ –
But officials insisted there was no change to US strategy which prioritised the battle against IS in neighbouring Iraq where there were capable local forces to work with on the ground.
Commanders were mindful of the dire humanitarian situation for the Kurds in Kobane, but Washington did not consider it a strategic location, a US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
With the world media gathered just across the border in Turkey, the conquest of Kobane would be a highly visible symbolic victory for the extremists.
But US officials said there was no viable, moderate rebel force in Syria fighting the jihadists on the ground.
Coordination in Kobane has been hampered by the close ties between the YPG fighters defending the town and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a three-decade insurgency for self-rule in neighbouring southeastern Turkey.
The PKK is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington although the YPG itself is not.
Those ties have also complicated Turkey’s response, with the government deeply reluctant to allow weapons or Kurdish fighters to cross the border.
There has been disappointment in Washington and elsewhere that Ankara has yet to commit its well-equipped and well-trained forces to the fight against the militants.
But Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “It’s not realistic to expect that Turkey will lead a ground operation on its own.”