BEIRUT - The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group launched a two-pronged offensive in northern Syria yesterday after several setbacks, re-entering the symbolic battleground town of Kobane and seizing parts of the city of Hasakeh.
In southern Syria, an alliance of rebel groups, including Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, also attacked government-held areas of the city of Daraa.
Analysts said the surprise ISIS assaults were aimed at diverting Kurdish forces after they scored a series of victories and advanced on the militants' Syrian stronghold of Raqa.
Kobane, on the border with Turkey, became an important symbol in the battle against ISIS after the group launched a bid to take it last year.
Kurdish forces backed by United States-led air strikes waged a four-month battle to repel the group, finally securing the town in January.
But the militant group, also known as IS, returned yesterday, detonating a suicide car bomb near the border crossing adjacent to Kobane as they launched an assault.
A Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said at least 12 civilians and Kurdish fighters were killed in the car-bomb blast and subsequent fighting in the centre of the town, along with eight ISIS militants.
A few hours later, two more car bombs detonated near the border, but there were no immediate details on casualties.
ISIS forces also entered a Kurdish village some 20km south of Kobane yesterday, executing at least 23 residents, among them women and children, the observatory said.
The militants withdrew from Barkh Butan after US-led coalition strikes on the outskirts of the village and the arrival of Kurdish forces, the monitor said.
The ISIS assault on Kobane prompted angry Kurdish accusations that Turkey had allowed the militants to enter Syria from its territory, a claim Turkish officials dismissed as baseless.
Since being pushed out of Kobane at the start of the year, ISIS has suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and their Arab rebel allies.
On June 16, the YPG seized the border town of Tal Abyad, a key transit point for ISIS, and then drove south towards Raqa, the militants' de facto Syrian capital.
As the Kobane attack began yesterday, ISIS forces also entered the north-eastern city of Hasakeh.
Mr Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre think-tank, said the two-pronged assault was a diversionary tactic after Kurdish forces advanced to within 55km of Raqa this week.
"Events overnight in Kobane and Hasakeh have displayed classic IS strategy, whereby unexpected, spectacular attacks have been launched as diversionary operations aimed at distracting the Kurds from their role approaching Raqa," said Mr Lister, author of The Syrian Jihad, a book on ISIS.
ISIS fighters yesterday controlled two neighbourhoods in southern Hasakeh, capital of a Kurdish- majority province in the north-east, the observatory said.
At least 30 government loyalists and 20 militants were killed in the fighting, and civilian residents were fleeing to the north of the city.
In southern Syria, government troops came under attack in Daraa, another provincial capital. An alliance of rebel groups including Al-Nusra attacked government-held parts of the city, the observatory said.
A military source in Damascus said "the fighting between the two sides in Daraa city that began overnight is continuing", and state television said at least six people had been killed in rebel mortar and makeshift rocket fire on the city.