SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Turkey said it was helping Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross into Syria to support their brethren fighting Islamic State militants in a key border town, although activists inside embattled Kobani said no forces had arrived by Monday evening, raising questions about whether the mission was really underway.
The statement by Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu came hours after the U.S. airdropped weapons and ammunition to resupply Kurdish fighters for the first time. Those airdrops Sunday followed weeks of airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition in and near Kobani.
After a relative calm, heavy fighting erupted in the town as dusk fell, with the clatter of small arms and tracer fire, as well as the thud of mortar rounds and big explosions of two airstrikes that resounded across the frontier.
"We are helping peshmerga forces to enter into Kobani to give support," Cavusoglu said at a news conference, referring to the security forces of the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The Kurdish government there is known to be friendly to the Turkish government.
A peshmerga spokesman said he had not been ordered to move units to Syria.
"They have not given us any orders to move our units," said the spokesman, Halgurd Hekmat. "But we are waiting, and we are ready."
The Kurdish activists in Kobani said there was no sign of any peshmerga forces.
Still, it was unprecedented for Turkey to promise to give Kurds passage to fight in Syria. That, combined with the U.S. airdrops, reflected the importance assigned to protecting Kobani from the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, which has rampaged across Iraq and Syria in recent months.
It also underscored the enormity of the challenge in battling militants who have been trying to seize Kobani since last month to spread their rule along the mountainous spine of the Syria-Turkey border, an area dominated by ethnic Kurds.
Ankara views Kurdish fighters in Syria as loyal to what Turkish officials regard as an extension of the group known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
The government is under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — not only from the West but also from Kurds in Syria and inside Turkey who accuse Ankara of standing by while their people are slaughtered. Earlier this month across Turkey, there were widespread protests that threatened to derail promising talks to end the PKK insurgency.
Although a significant departure from previous positions, Turkey's announcement to allow fighters to cross its territory is not a complete policy reversal, since it involves peshmerga fighters from Iraq and not those from the PKK.
It remains uncertain whether Ankara would allow heavily armed Iraqi Kurdish fighters to make the journey in large numbers. It is also unclear if many of those peshmerga troops would even do so, given that the IS militants still threaten their areas in Iraq.
Cavusoglu did not give details of where and how Turkey would allow the Kurdish fighters to cross into Syria.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf called Turkey a "close NATO ally and partner," and said the U.S. has a "very close relationship" with Ankara. She said the Obama administration is still discussing ways Turkey can play a larger role in the coalition, and praised steps Ankara already has taken to stem foreign fighters and funding from moving to the militants across Turkey's borders.
However, Harf also indicated the U.S. did not seek approval from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before dropping weapons and aid to Kurdish fighters. She said the Kurdish fighters and the PKK are not legally linked.
"It's not about consent," Harf said Monday. She said President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry separately notified Turkish leaders "our intent to do this and had discussions with them about why we believe this is an important thing to do in this fight against ISIL around Kobani."
"It did become clear recently that the forces on the ground were running low on supplies necessary to continue this fight, that's why we decided now to authorize this," Harf said. "And our support will continue to help them repel ISIL," she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
Kerry said it would be "irresponsible" and "morally very difficult" not to support the Kurds in their fight against IS.
"Let me say very respectfully to our allies the Turks that we understand fully the fundamentals of their opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly obviously the challenges they face with respect the PKK," Kerry said.
"But we have undertaken a coalition effort to degrade and destroy ISIL, and ISIL is presenting itself in major numbers in this place called Kobani," he told reporters in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
Iraqi Kurds provided the weapons and aid for the Kurdish fighters in Syria. But both sides relied on U.S. pilots to fly the supplies between the two nations and drop where they could be accessed by the Kurds in Syria.
Harf also said "it's possible" that the weapons being given to the Syrian Kurds were initially U.S. munitions that were either sold or otherwise transferred to Iraqi Kurdish security forces from American authorities. She did not immediately know for sure if that was the case.
Barzan Iso, a journalist based in Kobani, said he saw the airdrop, which included anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles, large amounts of artillery shells and medicine.
The Americans dropped the bundles amid heavy wind, he said. Two bundles landed in IS-held areas, and Kurdish fighters were able to retrieve one, while the other was blown up by the U.S. from the air, Isso said.
The U.S. Central Command said the coalition conducted six airstrikes near Kobani in the past 24 hours, targeting IS fighting and mortar positions and a vehicle. It confirmed that one airstrike targeted a stray resupply bundle. U.S. cargo planes also dropped arms and supplies provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq, the Central Command said.
Idris Nassan, a senior Kurdish official from Kobani who is now in the Turkish town of Mursitpinar, confirmed the Kurdish fighters received the airdrop and asked for more weapons.
"We are not in need of fighters. We are able to defeat the terrorists of ISIS if we have weaponry — enough weaponry and enough ammunition," he told The Associated Press.
The weapons drop for the Kurdish forces was a stunning diplomatic success. Syrian Kurdish officials have been lobbying Western governments for support.
They have argued that their fighters are the kind the West would want to support in Syria: secular, relatively moderate and well-disciplined. They have pointed to their opposition to the Islamic State group: most notably in August, when their forces fought to create a safe passage in northern Iraq to evacuate tens of thousands of Yazidis — a persecuted religious minority who fled an onslaught by the extremists.
"We (asked) the international community from the beginning of these clashes for help, for more effective weaponry and for more ammunition," Nassan said. "This is the first step."
Iso, the journalist in Kobani, said by telephone that he had not seen any peshmerga — he called out to a group of Kurdish fighters with him if they had seen any, and they could be heard answering "No!" over the line.
Echoing the views of many Kurds, who are deeply suspicious of Turkey, Iso said the foreign minister's statements had "nothing to do with reality."
The two top U.S. envoys to the global coalition, retired Marine Gen. John Allen and Ambassador Brett McGurk, will travel to Britain, France and across the Mideast in the next 10 days to meet with allies. There were no immediate plans for them to go to Turkey.
Turkey has not allowed the U.S. and its allies to use its airspace or air bases to strike inside Syria.
In recent days, many of the airstrikes have focused around Kobani, which IS militants have been trying to seize for a month. Turkey has given sanctuary to about 200,000 Syrians fleeing Kobani and dozens of nearby villages captured by the IS group.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul; Zeina Karam and Diaa Hadid in Beirut; Matthew Lee in Jakarta, Indonesia; Robert Burns, Lara Jakes and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.