ISIS raises flag in eastern Kobani, Kurds say town has not fallen

MURSITPINAR, Turkey (REUTERS) - ISIS raised its flag on a building on the outskirts of the Syrian frontier town of Kobani on Monday after an assault of almost three weeks, but the town's Kurdish defenders said its fighters had not reached the city centre.

A black flag belonging to ISIS, short for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was visible from across the Turkish border atop a four-storey building close to the scene of some of the most intense clashes in recent days. The radical Al-Qaeda offshoot has been battling to seize the predominantly Kurdish town after taking over large swathes of territory in northern Syria and Iraq in recent months.

Air strikes by American and Gulf state warplanes have failed to halt its advance on Kobani, which it has besieged from three sides and pounded with heavy artillery. Local sources inside Kobani confirmed that ISIS had planted its flag, but said Kurdish forces had repelled its advances so far.

"(ISIS) have only planted a flag on one building," said Ismail Eskin, a journalist in the town. "That is not inside the city, it's on the eastern side. They are not inside the city. Intense clashes are continuing. The bodies of 25 (ISIS) fighters are there."

Mortars have rained down on residential areas of Kobani, and stray fire has hit Turkish territory in recent days. But Kurdish pleas for more effective military help have so far gone unanswered, despite the presence of Turkish tanks arrayed along the border, within sight of the town.

ISIS also fought intense battles over the weekend for control of Mistanour, a strategic hill overlooking Kobani. A video released by the group on Sunday appeared to show its fighters in control of radio masts on the summit, but the footage could not be independently confirmed and Eskin said fighting for the high ground was continuing on Monday.

Until recently, the city had hardly been touched by the civil war that has ravaged much of Syria, and even offered a haven for refugees from fighting elsewhere, as President Bashar al-Assad chose to let the Kurdish population have virtual autonomy.

But now ISIS wants to take the town to consolidate a dramatic sweep across northern Iraq and Syria, in the name of an absolutist version of Sunni Islam, that has sent shockwaves through the Middle East.

Beheadings, mass killings and torture have spread fear of the group across the region, with villages emptying at their approach and an estimated 180,000 people fleeing into Turkey from the Kobani region.

On Sunday, one female Kurdish fighter blew herself up rather than be captured by ISIS after running out of ammunition, local sources and a monitoring group reported.

Turkish hospitals have been treating a steady stream of wounded Kurdish fighters being brought across the frontier.

Witnesses who had fled Kobani said that old women were being given grenades to throw, and young women with no fighting experience were being armed and sent into battle. Kobani's defenders vowed not to relinquish the town, raising fears of a massacre if ISIS does break through.

"If they enter Kobani, it will be a graveyard for us and for them. We will not let them enter Kobani as long as we live,"Esmat al-Sheikh, head of the Kobani Defence Authority, said by telephone earlier on Monday.

"We either win or die. We will resist to the end," he added as heavy weapons fire echoed from the eastern side of town.

Speaking last week, the co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) told Reuters that ISIS had brought large parts of its arsenal from its de facto capital at Raqqa, 140 km to the southeast, to the assault on Kobani.

"If (ISIS) is defeated here in Kobani, it will be defeated in Raqqa and throughout Syria," Asya Abdullah said. "We are happy about the U.S. air strikes. But really, this is not enough. We need more air strikes to be effective against (ISIS) weapons, to eradicate and destroy (them)."

On Monday, Kurdish politicians confirmed that the PYD's other co-chair, Saleh Muslim, had met Turkish officials to urge them to allow weapons into Kobani from Turkey, although no further details were available. Turkey has so far given no hint that it could join the fight against ISIS close to its borders, beyond gestures of self-defence such as returning fire at the extremist group's fighters in response to mortar shells landing on Turkish territory.

Over the weekend, President Tayyip Erdogan vowed to retaliate if ISIS attacked Turkish forces, and on Monday Turkish tanks deployed along the border for the second time in a week, some with guns pointing towards Syria, apparently in response to stray fire.

Still, the release by ISIS last month of 46 Turkish hostages, and a parliamentary motion last week renewing a mandate allowing Turkish troops to cross into Syria and Iraq, have raised expectations that Ankara may be planning a more active role.

Its calculations are complex, however. For three decades, Ankara has fought an armed insurgency by its own Kurdish PKK militants demanding greater autonomy in Turkey's southeast. Analysts say it is now wary of helping Syrian Kurdish forces near Kobani as they have strong links with the PKK and have maintained ambiguous relations with Assad, to whom Turkey is implacably opposed.

Against that are warnings from the leaders of Turkey's Kurds that allowing Syria's Kurds to be driven from Kobani would spell the end of Erdogan's delicately poised drive to negotiate an end to his own Kurdish insurgency and permanently disarm the PKK.