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Iraqi peshmerga fighters enter Syria to save besieged town of Kobani

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SURUC, Turkey — Iraqi peshmerga fighters began entering the Syrian border town of Kobani Friday night where they were expected to join the battle against Islamist militants besieging the town, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Kobani-based activist Mustafa Bani said 10 vehicles carrying Iraqi peshmerga fighters and their weapons have entered the town. They said the Iraqi Kurdish force entered from an area west of the town near the strategic Tel Shair hill.

The Observatory and Bali said it was not immediately clear how many peshmerga fighters of the force of 150 have entered Kobani.

It was not clear why the force did not enter from the main border crossing point between Kobani and Turkey although it is likely because the area is subjected to attacks by the Islamic State group fighters.

Earlier on Friday night, journalists in the Turkish border town of Suruc saw the peshmerga force leaving the area where they had stayed for days and headed toward Kobani.

The fighters left in a convoy Friday night while waving Kurdish flags and giving the victory sign. As soon as the news spread in Suruc, fireworks were let off.

The peshmerga fighters came out cheering "Kobani, Kobani," while honking the horns of their vehicles and waving their rifles in the air. A line of Turkish riot policemen stood in front to prevent photographers from taking pictures of the fighters as they left.

Earlier in the day a Kurdish official blamed Ankara for the delay of the peshmerga force deployment for days.

The official with Syria's powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, claimed Turkish leaders had been hoping that militants from the Islamic State group would capture the town before the Iraqi fighters entered.

"There have been so many delays and the peshmerga are not to blame. The Turks are behind the delays," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. He added that attacks by IS on Kobani have increased meanwhile.

His comments illustrated the deep distrust between Syria's Kurds and Turkey. Relations between Turkey and Syria's Kurds have long been strained, in large part because Ankara believes the PYD is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey.

On Oct. 22, lawmakers in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region authorized peshmerga forces to travel to neighboring Syria and help fellow Kurds. The peshmerga fighters arr'ived in Turkey on Tuesday and have been staying in a facility in Suruc.

Anwar Muslim, a Syrian Kurdish official in Kobani, said earlier that the vanguard force that entered the town Thursday discussed defensive positions and strategy against the Islamic State group with the town's Kurdish defenders before leaving the town.

PHOTO: A man walks along with a horse and dog near a staging area where Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters are stationed on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, across from the Syrian town of Kobani, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. Ten Iraqi peshmerga fighters entered the northern Syrian border town of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, crossing over from Turkey on Thursday, the first from among a group of 150 Kurdish troops on their way into the embattled city. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A man walks along with a horse and dog near a staging area where Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters are stationed on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, across from the Syrian town of Kobani, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. Ten Iraqi peshmerga fighters entered the northern Syrian border town of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, crossing over from Turkey on Thursday, the first from among a group of 150 Kurdish troops on their way into the embattled city. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The hope is that the Iraqi Kurdish fighters will help reverse gains by Islamic State militants who have captured parts of the town as well as dozens of nearby villages.

The senior Kurdish official said "the peshmerga want to go in as soon as possible. This is very important for us regarding Kurdish unity. When the peshmerga and People's Protection Units are fighting together, this boosts the morale of the Kurdish people."

He said the peshmerga fighters are bringing with them heavy machineguns and most importantly anti-tank missiles. The official said Kurdish fighters in Kobani don't currently have the weapons to stop the tanks that the Islamic State group is using.

Islamic State fighters have been using heavy armored vehicles they had captured from Iraqi and Syrian troops when they conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria in June. With modern weapons in Kurdish hands, the balance of power could start tipping in their favor in Kobani.

In Paris, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the international community is focusing too much on the battle over Kobani and called for strikes in other parts of Syria.

Speaking at a news conference with French President Francois Hollande, Erdogan said, "We're only talking about Kobani, a city on the Turkish border where there is almost no one left besides 2,000 fighters."

"It's difficult to understand this approach: why are coalition forces continually bombarding Kobani? Why don't the coalition forces want to act in other zones?" Erdogan said.

The expected peshmerga deployment, accompanied by 50 members of the Free Syrian Army, was condemned by Syria's government as an act of Turkish aggression and a "blatant violation of Syrian sovereignty."

The official's comments came as the U.S. Central Command said American warplanes conducted four airstrikes near Kobani damaging four Islamic State fighting positions and one building occupied by the group.

Muslim and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Kurdish fighters in Kobani fought heavy battles with the Islamic State group that launched an offensive in the town six weeks ago.

"We have 10 martyrs in the past 24 hours," Muslim said, adding that corpses of Muslim militants are on their ground and they can't pick them up.

The Observatory said 22 Kurdish fighters were killed and 19 jihadis were killed on Thursday alone. The group added that 21 fighters with the Islamic State's police force known as Hisba, were killed in airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition on Thursday.

Islamic State militants launched the attack on Kobani in mid-September, capturing dozens of Kurdish villages in addition to parts of the border town. More than 200,000 people have fled to Turkey and more than 800 people have died, activists say.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga soldier, backdropped by the Turkish flag, sits on a tanker truck at a gas station prior to their departure to the Syrian city of Kobani, outside a staging area on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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