Islamic State flees Kobani in Syria; Kurds in Turkey, Iraq dance in the streets

Kurdish fighters in Syria claimed Tuesday to have lifted the Islamic State’s four-month siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani and said the last Islamic State attackers were on the run.

“The Islamic State is on the verge of defeat,” Idriss Nassan, a spokesman for the local Kurdish militia, said in an interview posted on Facebook. “Their defenses have collapsed and its fighters have fled. The siege is over.”

The Islamic State rout was greeted with celebration by Kurds throughout the region, where Kobani had become a symbol of Kurdish nationalism.

If the Islamic State remains routed, the outcome would be a major victory for Syrian Kurdish forces in a town that was thought to have had negligible strategic value but became the primary focus of the U.S. aerial campaign against the Islamic State; estimates by both the Associated Press and Al Jazeera said 80 percent of U.S. airstrikes in the past four months hit targets in Kobani.

In the 24 hours that ended at 8 a.m. local time Monday, 17 of the 21 strikes in Syria were in Kobani, according to U.S. Central Command. By Centcom’s count, those 17 hit 15 Islamic State fighting units, eight fighting positions, a vehicle and a staging area. There were 13 strikes in Iraq during the same period, Centcom reported.

In a separate statement, Centcom congratulated Kobani’s defenders, calling them “courageous” and saying they had “fought aggresively with resilience and fortitude.”

“U.S. Central Command confirms that anti-ISIL forces now control approximately 90 percent of the city of Kobani,” the military command said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “While the fight against ISIL is far from over, ISIL’s failure in Kobani has denied them one of their strategic objectives.”

Ibrahim Muslem, a Syrian Kurdish official, told McClatchy that Islamic State fighters had been ousted from Kobani itself and had been pushed off their positions on Nur Hill, which overlooks the city and two neighboring villages. He said many fighters had deserted their weapons and ran. Many, he said, had fled into Turkey, and the Islamic State was attempting to stop their flight.

“There are a lot of dead bodies . . . and they left some of the weapons,” Gharib Hassou, a representative of Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which rules Kurdish Syria, told the Associated Press. Fighting, he said, was limited to two or three streets. Hassou said the Islamic State fighters had retreated to Tal Abyad to the east, while Muslem said the Islamic State fighters had relocated to the village of Halanj, about a mile and a half to the southeast of the city.

Residents of Kurdish cities inside Turkey erupted in spontaneous street demonstrations when word of the Islamic State defeat circulated. Syrians from Kobani, which sits on the Turkish border, and Turkish Kurds shared traditional Kurdish dances and songs in the streets and public squares throughout southern Turkey.

In Diyarbakir, the capital of Turkey’s Kurdish area, crowds gathered and sang traditional songs in front of the municipal building.

There was also an outpouring of joy in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which sent an estimated 200 troops and heavy weapons to assist in Kobani’s defense.

Turkey has a long and bitter relationship with its Kurdish residents, and that played a role in the drama surrounding Kobani, which is one of three Kurdish enclaves in Syria that have operated autonomously under the PYD for the past three years, after Syrian government forces withdrew from the region. When the Islamic State began its offensive against Kobani in September, Turkish authorities at first refused to allow aid to reach PYD-aligned fighters, saying they were tied to a Turkish Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, that has waged a three-decade-long war against Turkish rule.

But after the United States, against the wishes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began air-dropping weapons and ammunition to Kobani’s Kurdish defenders, Turkey agreed to allow a contingent of Iraqi Kurds to travel through Turkey, bringing heavy weapons and supplies to Kobani.

According to Kurdish officials and human rights groups, the siege of Kobani, which once had a population of about 250,000, was costly in terms of both life and property. Most of the city has been devastated in close-quarter, often house-to-house fighting.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that since mid-September, the fighting had killed at least 1,600 people: 1,100 of those Islamic State fighters, over 400 Kurdish fighters and a few dozen civilians.

The victory, however, is unlikely to see the quick return of the estimated 200,000 Syrian Kurds who fled to Turkey during the siege. Abduljabbar al Akidi, a commander of a moderate Syrian rebel group that contributed fighters to defending Kobani, said he thought it would be some time before residents could return.

“Civilians can certainly come back, but the city is destroyed almost completely,” he said.

Special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee in Istanbul and Dugyu Guvenc in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.