MURSITPINAR, Turkey – A small group of Syrian rebels entered the embattled border town of Kobani from Turkey on Wednesday on a mission to help Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State extremists in Syria, activists and Kurdish officials said.
The group of around 50 armed men is from the Free Syrian Army, and it's separate from Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters who were also en route Wednesday to Kobani, along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Idriss Nassan, a Kurdish official from Kobani, said the FSA group crossed to Kobani through the Mursitpinar border crossing in Turkey. Nassan, who spoke in Mursitpinar, said they travelled in cars but did not have more details.
The FSA is an umbrella group of mainstream rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The political leadership of the Western-backed FSA is based in Turkey, where fighters often seek respite from the fighting.
The 150 Iraqi peshmerga troops arrived in Turkey from Iraq early on Wednesday and were expected to cross into Syria later in the day. Their deployment came after Ankara agreed to allow the peshmerga troops to cross into Syria via Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the BBC that sending the peshmerga and the Free Syrian Army was "the only way to help Kobani, since other countries don't want to use ground troops."
A Kurdish journalist in Kobani and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed that a group of about 50 FSA fighters entered Kobani Wednesday.
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 Kobani also through Mursitpinar crossing.
The Islamic State group launched its offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages in mid-September, killing more than 800 people, according to activists. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages around Kobani and control parts of the town. More than 200,000 people have fled across the border into Turkey.
The U.S. is leading a coalition that has carried out dozens of airstrikes targeting the militants in and around Kobani.
The deployment of the 150 peshmerga fighters, who were authorized by the Iraqi Kurdish government to go to Kobani, underscores the sensitive political tensions in the region.
Turkey's government views the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what Ankara regards as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
Under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — from the West as well as from Kurds inside Turkey and Syria — the Turkish government agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory. But it only is allowing the peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the PKK.
The force 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.