BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State fighters on Tuesday launched a surprise attack on a Syrian border town recently seized by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, taking positions in the eastern part of the town and waging fierce gun battles with its defenders, activists said.
The attack on Tal Abyad resembled another surprise assault by the IS group last week on the border town of Kobani, where Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-led airstrikes had driven out the extremists in January. The two attacks brutally displayed the extremists' resilience and signaled a possible change in tactics following a string of defeats at the hands of Kurdish forces.
Kurdish activist Mustafa Bali said Tuesday that IS fighters killed 233 people in Kobani, including 100 children, saying most of those killed were shot in cold blood, some inside their homes. He said 35 Kurdish fighters were killed following the June 25 attack.
Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group with a network of activists inside Syria, said 223 civilians were killed in Kobani, including "scores" of women and children, as well as 37 Kurdish fighters. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the slightly different tolls.
Kurdish fighters captured Tal Abyad two weeks ago -- denying the IS group a crucial border crossing used to bring in supplies and foreign fighters and causing immediate price hikes in areas under IS control. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, the Kurds then advanced south toward the extremist group's de facto capital, Raqqa.
But in Tuesday's surprise attack, IS fighters battled their way back into Tal Abyad, seizing the eastern Mashhour neighborhood, Abdurrahman said, adding that the extremists did not appear to have enough fighters to retake the whole town.
Bali and a senior Kurdish defense official, Nasser Haj Mansour, told The Associated Press that the small group of IS fighters might have been a sleeper cell that came from inside the town. Bali said that after a fierce battle lasting up to three hours, the fighters took shelter in an empty school building. He later said all the IS fighters were killed.
Mansour said late Tuesday that the fighters were holed up in two buildings and were being "dealt with" by Kurdish forces. "The fight will soon be over," he said.
Conflicting accounts are not uncommon during or immediately after such battles.
In the remote northeastern city of Hassakeh, meanwhile, Syrian government forces and allied paramilitary National Defense Forces retook Eastern Ghoweiran, a neighborhood seized by IS militants last week, activists and Syrian state television said Tuesday.
Fighting has raged in Hassakeh since the IS group attacked several southern neighborhoods held by government troops earlier this month. The violence has left dozens killed and forced at least 60,000 residents to flee, according to activists and a Western aid group.
Turkey-based opposition figure Mustafa Osso said IS captured three predominantly Arab neighborhoods in Hassakeh last week and that fighting was continuing in the city.
The U.S. military said Tuesday that the U.S.-led coalition has conducted seven overnight airstrikes near Hassakeh, hitting five groups of IS fighters, destroying four vehicles, an armored personnel carrier and a tank.
Until the latest IS advance, the predominantly Kurdish city was split between government forces and Kurdish fighters, who have been fighting the IS group separately.
In Syria's eastern province of Deir el-Zour, meanwhile, IS fighters have beheaded two couples they accused of practicing sorcery, according to Abdurrahman of the Observatory.
The beheadings were carried out over the past week, he said, without giving further details.
The IS group, which governs its self-styled caliphate in accordance with an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, has in the past beheaded dozens of people for blasphemy, sorcery and espionage. The group has beheaded female Kurdish fighters, but beheading civilian women remains rare.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.