MURSITPINAR, Turkey – Bolstered by intensified U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting militants from the Islamic State group, Kurdish militiamen fought pitched street battles Wednesday with the extremists in a Syrian Kurdish border town near Turkey, making small advances, activists and officials said.
Elsewhere in Syria, in a stark reminder of the country's wider civil war, a Syrian lawmaker was gunned down in the central province of Hama — the latest assassination to target a figure linked to President Bashar Assad's government.
In the border town of Kobani, members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, were making progress against Sunni militants, hours after the U.S.-led coalition stepped up airstrikes in and around the town, said Asya Abdullah, a Syrian Kurdish leader.
The U.S. Central Command said Wednesday that U.S. military forces conducted 18 airstrikes against Islamic State group targets near Kobani in the past 24 hours, destroying multiple fighting positions and striking 16 IS-occupied buildings. On Tuesday, the Pentagon had said that 21 airstrikes against Islamic State targets near Kobani overnight Monday marked the largest number there in a 24-hour period since the air campaign in Syria began last month.
Abdullah, the co-president of Syria's powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, told The Associated Press that Kurdish fighters have advanced near the hill of Tel Shair that overlooks part of the town, taking advantage of the air raids that slowed the push by the militants. Abdullah spoke by phone from Kobani.
The U.S. and its allies have also struck oil facilities to try to cut off smuggling by the extremists, hurting the group's income in both Iraq and Syria.
The Paris-based International Energy agency said in a report that U.S.-led airstrikes have significantly weakened the Islamic State's ability to produce, operate oil fields and smuggle oil — a major source of income for the militants.
In its monthly report released Tuesday, the agency said the aerial bombardment has brought production down to around 20,000 barrels per day from a high of about 70,000 in the summer.
But in remarks underscoring the region's layered crises, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc mocked the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani, comparing their struggle against the Islamic State group to the guerrilla war of the affiliated Kurdish PKK rebels, who have fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey, largely in mountainous regions in Turkey's east.
"They are not able to put up a serious fight there," Arinc told reporters in the southeastern city of Adiyaman.
"It is easy to fight on the mountain against the military, police, the teacher and the judge. It is easy to kidnap people but they are not able to fight in Kobani," he said. "I could say a lot more but let me leave it at that so that they are not embarrassed."
The harsh comments also reflected Turkey's delicate position on the fighting in Kobani. On Tuesday, Turkey launched airstrikes against Kurdish rebels inside its borders, defying please from the U.S. to instead focus on the IS.
The Islamic State group launched its offensive on Kobani in mid-September, capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages, as well as about a third of the town. The fighting in and around Kobani has killed more than 500 people and forced more than 200,000 people to flee across the border into Turkey.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said Wednesday's clashes were taking place in Kobani's eastern neighborhoods as well as the southern edge of the town.
The Observatory also reported several airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in the town Wednesday and plumes of smoke rising from the strikes were visible across the border in Turkey.
In Syria's restive central province of Hama, gunmen opened fire late Tuesday at lawmaker Waris al-Younes' car as he was travelling on a road linking the city of Hama with the town of Salamiyeh, according to the state-run SANA news agency.
A Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, told The Associated Press that al-Younes died Tuesday night.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Several Syrian officials have been assassinated since Syria's crisis began in March 2011. The uprising, which later turned into a civil war, has killed more than 190,000 people, according to the United Nations.
Also Wednesday, Syria's Foreign Ministry dismissed Turkey's calls for a no-fly zone on the Syrian territories as a "flagrant violation" of the U.N. charter and international law.
"Syria categorically rejects the establishment of no-fly zones on any part of the Syrian territories under any pretext," the ministry said.
Turkey has said it won't join the fight against the Islamic State extremists in Syria unless the U.S.-led coalition also goes after the Assad's government, including establishing a no-fly zone and a buffer zone along the Turkish border.
Aji reported from Damascus. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.