SURUC, Turkey (AP) – A group of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga troops arrived in Turkey early Wednesday on their way to Syria to help their Syrian Kurdish brethren fight Islamic State (IS) extremists in the embattled border town of Kobane.
The unprecedented mission by the 150 fighters came after Ankara agreed to allow the peshmerga troops to cross into Syria via Turkey – although the Turkish prime minister reiterated that his country would not be sending any ground forces of its own to Kobane, along the Syrian-Turkish border.
After a rousing send-off from thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, the peshmerga forces landed early Wednesday at the Sanliurfa airport in southeastern Turkey. They left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces and were expected to travel to Kobane through the Mursitpinar border crossing with Syria.
The IS launched its offensive on Kobane and nearby Syrian villages in mid-September, killing more than 800 people, according to activists. The militants captured dozens of Kurdish villages around Kobane and control parts of the town. More than 200,000 people have fled across the border into Turkey.
The deployment of the 150 peshmerga fighters, who were authorised by the Iraqi Kurdish government to go to Kobani, underscores the sensitive political tensions in the region.
A separate Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers and trucks carrying cannons and machine guns crossed into Turkey early Wednesday at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing at Zakho in northern Iraq.
The land convoy and the 150 fighters were expected to join up and cross jointly into Syria.
Peshmerga soldiers carrying Kurdish flags were atop some of the vehicles as they headed from Irbil to the Iraqi-Turkish border crossing. The troops made the victory sign for the cameras. An ambulance and government vehicles blaring their sirens accompanied the convoy.
Scores of people waited by the side of the road in villages for the troops to pass. Thousands of people awaited them at the border. The crowd sang and chanted traditional peshmerga songs and had to be pushed back by every vehicle that tried to make its way through the masses. Many people carried colorful Kurdish flags and portraits of the Iraqi Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani.
The Kurds of Syria and Iraq have become a major focus in the war against the IS group, with Kurdish populations in both countries under significant threat by the militant group’s lightning advance as it seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region.
The Iraqi Kurdish parliament voted overwhelmingly to send fighters to Kobane, underscoring the growing cooperation among the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The action marked the first mission for the peshmerga outside Iraq.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said US officials “certainly encourage” the deployment of Iraqi peshmerga forces to Kobane.
It will provide much-needed support for the Syrian Kurds, although it is not clear whether Turkey will allow the peshmerga fighters to carry enough weaponry to make an impact.