BEIRUT –U.S. fighter jets and bombers expanded their aerial campaign against Islamic State targets Wednesday, striking the militants in both Syria and Iraq even as the extremists pressed their offensive in Kurdish areas within sight of the Turkish border, where fleeing refugees told of civilians beheaded and towns torched.
President Barack Obama, speaking at the United Nations, vowed an extended assault and called on the world to join in.
“The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force, so the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death,” he told the U.N. General Assembly in a 38-minute speech. “Today, I ask the world to join in this effort.”
In Syria, hard-line rebels aligned with a faction fighting to oust President Bashar Assad, but considered too radical by the U.S., packed up their heavy weapons and evacuated their bases over fears the Obama administration would target all fighters deemed a potential threat to the United States.
Wednesday’s strikes marked the second day of a broadened U.S. military operation against the Islamic State group, after a barrage of more than 200 strikes on some two dozen targets in Syria a day earlier. That campaign, which the White House has warned could last years, builds upon the air raids the U.S. has already been conducting for more than a month against the extremists in Iraq.
The ultimate aim of the Obama administration and its Arab partners is to destroy the Islamic State group, which through brute force has carved out a proto-state in the heart of the Middle East, effectively erasing the border between Iraq and Syria. Along the way, the extremist faction has massacred captured soldiers, terrorized religious minorities and beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker.
On Wednesday, Algerian extremists aligned with the Islamic State group declared in a video that they had beheaded a fourth hostage, a Frenchman seized in Algeria on Sunday, in retaliation for France joining the aerial assault against the militants in Iraq. French President Francois Hollande said France would not be deterred by the act of “barbarity.”
“This particular group … they don’t strike only those who don’t think like they do. They also strike Muslims. … They rape, they kill,” a visibly upset Hollande told the U.N. General Assembly. “It is for this reason that the fight the international community needs to wage versus terrorism knows no borders.”
Meanwhile, U.S. allies lined up in support of the aerial campaign. The Dutch government announced it would send six F-16 fighter jets along with 250 pilots and support staff to strike at Islamic State targets in Iraq, while British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said Parliament had been recalled to debate Britain’s response to a request to support the airstrikes.
U.S. and coalition forces hit a dozen targets in Syria that included small-scale oil refineries that have been providing millions of dollars a day in income to the Islamic State, the U.S. Central Command said. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took part, along with U.S. aircraft.
Earlier, U.S. strikes damaged Islamic State vehicles in Syria near the Iraqi border town of Qaim, the U.S. Central Command said. It also reported hitting two Islamic State armed vehicles west of Baghdad, as well as two militant fighting positions in northern Iraq.
In a separate statement, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the strikes in eastern Syria hit a staging area used by the militants to move equipment across the border into Iraq.
Despite the start of the coalition campaign, Islamic State fighters continued their advance against Syrian Kurdish militiamen around the town of Ayn Arab, known to Kurds as Kobani, near the Turkish border, where refugees fleeing into Turkey reported the beheading of captives and the torching of homes.
A Kurdish militiaman fighting to protect the city said Islamic State militants were less than half a mile (one kilometre) from the outskirts Wednesday.
Weary refugees arriving in Turkey described atrocities at the hands of the Islamic State militants. Osman Nawaf, 59, said he saw about 50 bodies hanging headless in the village of Boras when he passed it on his three-day walk from a village on the outskirts of Kobani.
The fighting near Kobani could be seen from hilltops in Turkey. Kurds from Turkey and Syria cheered on the Kurdish fighters from one hilltop, while the fighters signalled back with mortar fire.
Halil Aslan, a 48 year-old local villager in Turkey, recounted seeing Islamic State tanks roll into a village on the Syrian side.
“They shelled the place with tanks and mortars,” he said. “We could hear them falling on those hills.”
A video posted online showed what appeared to be Islamic State fighters toting assault rifles and fanning out across a dusty field in the Kobani area. A later clip showed a field cannon firing a shell toward a town located across a rolling expanse of brown fields, followed by a puff of smoke in the distance. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.
In the opening salvo of the air campaign inside Syria on Tuesday, the U.S. also hit al-Qaida’s Syria branch, known as the Nusra Front. American officials said the strikes targeted the so-called Khorasan Group, a cell within the Nusra Front made up of hardened jihadis they said pose a direct and imminent threat to the United States.
On Wednesday, the Nusra Front said it was evacuating its compounds near civilian areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in northern Syria, according to the Aleppo Media Center activist group. The decision followed a U.S. airstrike on a Nusra Front base in the village of Kfar Derian that killed around a dozen fighters and 10 civilians, activists said.
Another Syrian rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, was also clearing out of its bases, according to the Observatory. It said the group issued a statement calling for fighters to limit the use of wireless communication devices to emergencies, to move heavy weapons and conceal them, and to warn civilians to stay away from the group’s camps.
Ahrar al-Sham has been among the most effective forces fighting to oust Assad in Syria’s civil war, and has also been on the front lines of a 9-month battle against the Islamic State group. But the U.S. has long looked askance at Ahrar al-Sham, considering it too radical and too cozy with the Nusra Front.
An activist in Idlib who goes by the name of Mohammed confirmed the Ahrar al-Sham evacuations. He did not know of any strikes against the group, but said the fighters thought they would be targeted by the U.S.-led coalition because of their ultraconservative Islamic beliefs.