US-led strikes kill more than 500 militants in Syria

Smoke rises from an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, after a US-led coalition strike, as seen from the Turkish border in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on Oct 18, 2014. US-led air strike
Smoke rises from an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, after a US-led coalition strike, as seen from the Turkish border in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on Oct 18, 2014. US-led air strikes in Syria were reported to have killed more than 500 militants in a month. -- PHOTO: AFP

MURSITPINAR, Turkey (AFP) - US-led air strikes in Syria were reported to have killed more than 500 militants in a month, as fighting raged in the embattled border town of Kobane.

The air strikes have killed 553 people since their launch, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, including 464 IS fighters and 57 militants from Al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.

Fighter jets were again heard flying over Kobane on Thursday, the AFP reporter said, a month after the US-led coalition expanded its aerial campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The town's Kurdish defenders have been holding out against an assault by the ISIS militant group for more than a month, buoyed in recent days by a promise of Iraqi Kurd reinforcements and US air drops of weapons.

Thirty-two civilians have also been killed, including six children and five women, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a wide network of sources inside Syria.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said that the "vast majority" of militants killed in the strikes were not Syrians but foreign fighters who had joined ISIS and Nusra in the country.

After first focusing on Iraq, the coalition has dramatically expanded its strikes in Syria in recent days, including at Kobane which has become a crucial battleground in the fight against ISIS.

The Islamist group launched an offensive against the town last month, as it seeks to expand its control over large parts of Syria and Iraq where ISIS declared an Islamic "caliphate" earlier this year.

After initially losing ground, the Kobane Kurds have fought back hard, with the US military saying they had halted the IS advance and held most of the town.

But local officials say the exhausted fighters are in desperate need of relief and anxious for promised reinforcements from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers in their capital Arbil agreed on Wednesday to send their peshmerga fighters, after Turkey this week said it would allow them to travel to Kobane.

Mustafa Qader, responsible for the peshmerga, said a decision would be made in the coming days about how many to send.

He did not say when the forces would arrive in Syria, but added that "they will remain there until they are no longer needed".

In Iraq, ISIS fighters had again surrounded Mount Sinjar in the country's north where they had trapped thousands of civilians this summer, commanders in the area said.

The civilians, mostly members of the Yazidi religious minority, eventually escaped via Syria with the help of Kurdish fighters from Iraq's neighbour to the west, but that route has now been cut.

"The mountain is besieged" again, and ISIS militants are "trying to climb the mountain on foot to fight the Yazidi volunteers," Dawud Jundi, a commander of the forces defending the area, said by telephone.

The ISIS push began Monday, when some 300 of the militants with armoured vehicles attacked and seized nearby villages and then turned their attention on the mountain itself.

"We don't have anything but light weapons," Jundi said.

On Mount Sinjar, "there are almost 2,000 families whose situations are very bad," he said.

The first siege of Mount Sinjar was a key moment in the conflict with ISIS, with the plight of the people trapped on the mountain helping to prompt Washington to begin air strikes against the militants.

The Iraqi capital Baghdad has also seen a wave of bomb attacks against Shiite targets in recent days, with IS claiming responsibility for some.

At least 28 people were killed on Wednesday when car bombs went off near a maternity hospital and a service station in areas of the capital where Shiites have frequently been targeted.

The bloodshed has raised fears of further attacks during the Ashura religious ritual in early November, when hundreds of thousands of Shiite faithful converge on the holy city of Karbala on foot.