SALHIYAH, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq captured a border crossing with Syria on Tuesday, expelling Islamic State militants in heavy fighting that ground down to vicious house-to-house combat and close quarters sniping.
In neighboring Syria, Kurdish militiamen were on the defensive as the extremists pressed ahead with a relentless assault on a town near the Turkish border. The attack on Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, has driven more than 160,000 people across the frontier in the past few days.
Iraqi Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, were doing the bulk of the fighting on the ground as a U.S.-led coalition carried out an aerial assault against the Islamic State group in both Iraq and Syria. Britain joined the air campaign Tuesday, carrying out its first strikes against the extremists in Iraq — though it does not plan to expand into Syria.
The goal of the campaign is to push back the militant group that has declared a self-styled caliphate, or Islamic state, ruled by its brutal interpretation of Islam in territory it has seized across much of Iraq and Syria.
On Tuesday, Kurdish fighters in Iraq said they saw some of the heaviest fighting yet. Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hekmat told The Associated Press the Kurds seized the border crossing of Rabia, which the extremists captured in their blitz across Iraq over the summer.
Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also said the Kurds had retaken the border post. He said Syrian Kurdish militiamen, who control the Syrian side of the frontier, had helped in the fight.
Kurds wounded in the fighting were brought to a makeshift clinic in the town of Salhiyah, where dusty and exhausted, they described savage battles, with militants sniping at them from inside homes and from the windows of a hospital in Rabia.
"They're such good fighters," said one soldier, resting outside the clinic on a rock surrounded by blood-soaked bandages. He refused to be identified because he was not a senior officer. "They're fighting with weapons the Iraqi military abandoned — so, American weapons really."
Fighters at the clinic described how the peshmerga first took the town of Mahmoudiya near the Syrian border on Monday, then moved down the highway to assault Rabia. The two sides had intense clashes overnight, with Islamic State group snipers shooting from inside houses and setting off roadside bombs.
Peshmerga fighters advanced on a five-story hospital in the city, only to be ambushed by some two dozen militants inside, the fighters said.
Hekmat said the Kurdish fighters intended to push further south toward the town of Sinjar, which the extremists took last month, prompting the flight of members of the small Yazidi religious sect.
In Britain's first airstrikes of the campaign, two Tornado jets hit a heavy weapons post and an armored vehicle being used by the militants to attack Kurdish forces in northwest Iraq, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in London.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the U.S. and its coalition partners conducted 20 strikes in Iraq and Syria against fixed and mobile targets. So far, about 306 air attacks have been conducted — more than 230 in Iraq and the rest in Syria, he said.
He said the strikes were having an effect because the extremists have changed their tactics — blending in more with the local population, dispersing and refraining from communicating as openly as they once did.
But, he said, that "doesn't mean they aren't still trying, and in some cases succeeding, at taking and holding ground."
"No one should be lulled into a false sense of security by accurate airstrikes," he said. "We will not, we cannot bomb them into obscurity."
In northern Syria, Islamic State group fighters have pushed ahead with an assault for days trying to take the beleaguered Kurdish town of Kobani near the Syrian-Turkish border — despite U.S. airstrikes on their positions.
The fighting has created one of the single largest exoduses in Syria's civil war, now in its fourth year: More than 160,000 people have fled into Turkey over the past few days, the U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said.
"Their fear is so great that many people crossed heavily mined fields to seek refuge," she told the U.N. Security Council.
Kurds and militants battled Tuesday on Kobani's eastern edge, said Ahmad Sheikho, an activist operating along the Syria-Turkey border. He said that members of the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, destroyed two tanks belonging to the Islamic State group. Militants have been hitting the town with mortars and artillery shells.
A day earlier, fighting around Kobani killed 57 fighters, both Kurds and militants, the Observatory said.
The situation in Kobani is "very difficult," said Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria's leading Kurdish Democratic Union Party.
Just outside Kobani, Islamic State militants captured the deserted Kurdish village of Siftek on Tuesday and appeared to be using it as a headquarters from which to launch attacks on Kobani itself.
The fighting could be seen from a hilltop on the Turkish side of the border, in the Karacabey area, where spectators — mostly Turkish Kurds — watched the fighting, peering through binoculars and cheering on their Syrian Kurdish brethren.
"Long live YPG! Long live Apo!" shouted one woman, referring to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose YPG group has been fighting Turkey for Kurdish autonomy, by the Kurdish nickname for Abdullah.
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Burhan Ozbilici in Suruc, Turkey, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.