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Fight in Syrian city hits home with Kurds across Turkish border

Fight in Syrian city hits home with Kurds across Turkish border
A fire caused by a strike rages in Kobani, Syria, as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and Islamic State. (Stringer / Getty Images)

Medics hastened into a hospital here Friday bearing several stretchers holding bloodied Kurdish fighters, including an unconscious woman combatant and a man suffering head trauma, his mouth a pulpy mess. All arrived in an ambulance after fierce clashes just across the border in the embattled Syrian city of Kobani.

"We just had 15 patients bought in," said a Kurdish doctor. "A tank fired at them."

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For weeks Kurdish fighters have resisted the advance of the militant Islamic State group into Kobani, drawing global attention to this isolated border zone. The human toll remains unknown, though there have been reports of hundreds killed.

Most residents have fled Kobani, but the United Nations warned Friday that as many as 700 civilians, many of them elderly, may be trapped in the city.

On Friday, there were conflicting reports about the extent of Islamic State's advance. Gunfire and explosions could be heard in the city. U.S. warplanes conducted at least seven new airstrikes in support of the vastly outgunned Kurds, according to the Pentagon.

Two of the airstrikes destroyed extremist training camps, the Pentagon said. Others targeted Islamic State vehicles and units.

From the Turkish side, it is impossible to tell who is winning the battle. Information has been sketchy and often inaccurate. But the Kurds appear to be holding out against the better armed militants as street fighting rages.

"The war is in the city," said Mostafa Basel, a Kurdish militia officer reached Friday via cellphone in Kobani. "ISIS has been fleeing the U.S. strikes," he said, using a common acronym for Islamic State.

Throughout the southern Turkish province of Sanliurfa, Kurdish fighters and civilians wounded in the fighting have been receiving medical treatment. But the effort appears semi-clandestine. Kurdish doctors seek to avoid contact with Turkish authorities, who are leery of nationalist sentiment among the country's large Kurdish minority.

Kurdish physicians say they must conceal their care of patients brought from Kobani onto Turkish soil. If caught, they say, they could face detention and interrogation.

"We are not allowed to treat these patients," said one Kurdish medic, who, like other Kurds interviewed, declined to give his name for security reasons. "We have to do it in secret."

The militia members holding out in Kobani are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long fight against Turkey for greater Kurdish self-determination.

A peace process is in place, but the Turkish government still considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization. Turkish officials worry that Kobani and other semi-autonomous Kurdish zones in northern Syria could bolster the PKK's  position, providing new bases and recruiting grounds.

The conflict in Kobani has severely aggravated relations between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority. Many Kurds are incensed that Turkish authorities have refused to allow Kurdish reinforcement and weapons into the besieged Syrian city, also known as Ayn al-Arab. Violent protests in Turkey have left dozens dead.

Still, wounded Kurds, both fighters and civilians, are receiving treatment on the Turkish side.

"I was leaving for the border when they [Islamic State fighters] attacked," 13-year-old Ibrahim Shaheen said from a hospital bed as his father sat nearby.

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Ibrahim was cut down in Kobani by shrapnel, which embedded in his side. A Turkish ambulance rushed him to a hospital in Sanliurfa. Wounds from both shrapnel and gunfire are common, doctors say.

"A sniper from ISIS shot me," said an 18-year-old Kurdish militiaman, sitting on a bed in a government-administered hospital about 30 miles from the border.

Crimson bruises marked his face. The sniper's bullet entered above his right eye, exiting through his left cheek.

"I don't mind being in a Turkish hospital, as long as Kurdish doctors are treating me," he said. "I will go back to Kobani to fight once I recover."

Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.


Follow @mcdneville on Twitter for news out of the Syrian conflict

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