BEIRUT, Lebanon — The militants of the Islamic State carried out two new offensives in northern Syria on Thursday, entering a provincial capital and detonating large bombs in the border town of Kobani, where intensive airstrikes by a United States-led coalition helped Kurdish forces rout the jihadists last year.
In southern Syria, rebel groups began a new campaign to push government forces from the city of Dara’a.
The new attacks by the Islamic State came more than a week after its fighters lost the town of Tal Abyad, on the Turkish border, to Kurdish militias and Arab rebels in what was seen as a strategic setback for the group. In striking back, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, appeared to be trying to counter losses in one place with attacks on other sites it considers vulnerable, a tactic it has employed before.
Kurdish activists inside Kobani said Islamic State fighters disguised in the uniforms of Kurdish militiamen had sneaked into the town at dawn, when few people were awake. Then a large truck bomb exploded at the town’s border crossing with Turkey, setting off clashes between the Islamic State militants and local Kurdish forces.
“They entered the neighborhoods and started killing civilians on their way,” said Baran Mesko, a Kurdish activist in Kobani. In a telephone interview, he said about 100 Islamic State fighters disguised as locals had taken up positions in Kobani, a small, strategic frontier town near the Syrian border with Turkey.
At least one more bombing followed, reportedly a suicide attack by a jihadist on a motorcycle, and Islamic State fighters were said to be blowing themselves up with explosive vests and killing civilians.
Kobani, known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic, gained prominence in the fight against the Islamic State last year, when Kurdish fighters fought for months to keep the group out, eventually succeeding in January with the help of intensive airstrikes by the United States-led coalition that has been bombing the militants in Iraq and Syria.
By Thursday evening the Islamic State militants were holed up in a school that had been converted into a hospital and were holding a number of Kurdish families hostage, Mr. Mesko said.
Graphic | ISIS Loses Two Towns to Kurds and Syrian Rebels Kurdish militias and Syrian rebels seized two strategic towns controlled by the Islamic State near the border with Turkey.
Salih Muslim, another Kurdish activist in Kobani, said the fighting continued late Thursday, and that Islamic State snipers were preventing crews from removing bodies lying in the streets.
The death toll from the fighting was unclear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain through contacts on the ground, said that 22 Islamic State fighters had been killed in addition to 35 civilians and Kurdish fighters. Activists reported higher numbers of casualties, but said they could not get a more accurate count because of the continuing fighting.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, also reported the clashes, saying five people were killed by the initial truck bomb.
That battle highlighted Turkey’s complicated relationship with the war just over its border: the Turkish Army did not intervene against the Islamic State nor did its soldiers join the international coalition against them. While Turkish leaders have condemned the Islamic State, they have also made it clear that they consider any Kurdish advance near their border a potential threat to national security.
The Kurdish militias fighting in Syria are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which fought a deadly insurgency against the Turkish state.
The distrust is mutual, and some Kurdish activists said Thursday that at least one bomber had entered the town from Turkey, a charge Turkish officials denied.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara on Thursday, a spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry, Tanju Bilgic, called those claims “baseless lies.”
Mr. Bilgic said that 63 people who had been wounded were brought across the border from Syria for treatment in Turkey after the explosions and that two died in the hospital.
Farther east, Islamic State fighters seized southern parts of the city of Hasaka, the regional capital of the oil-rich province of the same name. Control of the city had been split between Kurdish forces and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but activists said government forces had withdrawn to the city center.
The news agency SANA also reported the Islamic State incursion in Hasaka, accusing militants of using human shields in fierce clashes with government forces.
In southern Syria, a coalition of rebel fighters began a new offensive to push government forces from the city of Dara’a, widely regarded as the birthplace of the uprising against Mr. Assad that began in 2011 and later devolved into the civil war. The Syrian Observatory reported that more than 18 rebel fighters and at least 20 government soldiers were killed.
The Islamic State has only a small presence in southern Syria and most of the groups involved in the fighting there are nationalists seeking to oust Mr. Assad. Some have received financial and military support from the West through Jordan. Fighters from the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, were also involved.
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(via NY Times)