December 22, 2014

MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish fighters in Iraq pushed deeper Monday into the town of Sinjar, held by the Islamic State group, but are facing stiff resistance from the Sunni militants who captured it in August.

One of the fighters, Bakhil Elias, said clashes since late last night have been “fierce” and that IS militants are using snipers. At least two Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been killed by snipers and 25 were wounded in the latest fighting.

Large plumes of black smoke are billowing into the sky from inside the town. The Kurdish forces say the militants are burning tires and oil to create a smoke screen of thick dark clouds to obstruct airstrikes against their positions by the U.S-led coalition.

Last week, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters launched the operation to retake Sinjar and were able to reach thousands of Yazidis who were trapped on Mount Sinjar. Peshmerga fighters opened up a corridor to the mountain and are regularly bringing truckloads of aid and food to the area.

In neighboring Syria, Kurdish fighters pushed into an IS-held neighborhood in the northern town of Kobani, capturing a cultural center that they had besieged on Saturday. “The center is very important morally and militarily,” said Kobani-based activist Mustafa Bali, referring to the site, located on a hill that overlooks several neighborhoods east and southeast of the town.

“This will change the military rhythm in the coming days,” Bali said, adding that the aim of Kurdish fighters in Syria is to evict IS militants from Kobani and nearby villages. Kurdish fighters have been slowly advancing in Kobani over the past weeks backed by Iraqi peshmerga fighters who came to help, and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

The IS group began its Kobani offensive in mid-September, capturing parts of the town as well as dozens of nearby villages. Hundreds of fighters on both sides have been killed since. Idriss Nassan, a Kobani local official, said that over the past days the Syrian Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, “has taken the initiative” and advanced in IS-held neighborhoods.

Nassan said peshmerga fighters usually bombard IS positions in the town while YPG fighters carry out the ground attack with the help of airstrikes that target militant positions.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.