Kurdish fighters advance against jihadis in Syria
BEIRUT (AP) -- Kurdish fighters captured more than a dozen villages from militants of the Islamic State group in heavy fighting across northeastern Syria, an activist group and a Kurdish official said Monday.
The fighting in the mainly-Kurdish Hassakeh province came as diplomats at a Paris conference tried to agree on a global strategy to fight the extremist group, which has captured large tracts of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Kurdish fighters have been repelling the advances of the Islamic State militants for more than a year in northern Syria. The battle-hardened Kurdish force, known by its acronym YPK, has been the most successful at fighting the Islamic State group, which has routed Iraqi and Syrian armed forces.
As Syria's fractured rebels have fought a two-front war against President Bashar Assad's forces and the Islamic State group, Kurdish forces seeking greater autonomy have defended their region against the extremist group, occasionally partnering with rebels to beat back the Islamic militants.
After ignoring the spread of the Islamic State, the Syrian military has recently gone on the offensive against the extremist group, which has seized at least three army bases and killed hundreds of soldiers.
YPK fighters have captured some 14 villages around the northeastern area of Tal Hamis since the latest round of fighting with the Islamic State group began Saturday, according to the Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria's powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose members dominate the fighting group.
"We will fight them with all that we have," Khalil told The Associated Press by telephone. "Those (Islamic State) can only be deterred by force."
President Barack Obama announced last week that the United States will ramp up airstrikes and try to build an international coalition to degrade and eventually destroy the Islamic State group. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited several Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in recent days in order to build a coalition aimed at beating back the extremist group.
Spokesman Khalil said the Kurdish fighters were "ready to join any political coalition to strike this terrorist group."
"We are fighting, on behalf of the world, the terrorism of Daesh," he said, using an Arabic name to refer to the group.
But the Kurdish fighting group is viewed with suspicion by the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, which says the PYD is linked to Assad's government. Turkey is also wary of the group, which it believes is affiliated to the Kurdish PKK movement, which waged a long and bloody insurgency in Turkey's southeast.
In addition to losing the villages, the Islamic State group suffered another blow in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where the only bridge linking parts of the city held by militants with its suburbs was blown up. Abdurrahman said Islamic State fighters would now have to bring in supplies by boat.
Syria's state-run television said government forces were responsible for blowing up the al-Siyasiyeh Bridge over the Euphrates river.
In the Golan Heights along the disputed frontier between Israel and Syria, U.N. peacekeepers withdrew from at least one base, said an activist in the area who uses the name Luay.
The withdrawal came after Syrian rebels, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, advanced across the Syrian-controlled part of the territory and briefly seized dozens of U.N. peacekeepers. They were later released unharmed. The activist Luay said peacekeepers withdrew from two bases earlier this month, but were spotted leaving yet another this week, near a town known as Khan Arnabeh.
An Israeli army spokesman said U.N. peacekeepers crossed into Israel, but would not provide further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with military guidelines.
In the northern city of Aleppo, at least 11 people were killed in government airstrikes on the rebel-held neighborhood of Marjeh, according to the Britain-based Observatory -- which relies on a network of activists inside Syria -- and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Wissam.
Another 15 people were killed in the central opposition-held town of Talbiseh after Syrian military helicopters dropped crude bombs, according to the Observatory and a nearby activist, Tariq Badrakhan.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.