Smoke billowed over the pivotal Syrian town of Kobani last night as Islamic State militants followed up their 16-day siege with a massive offensive.
Three large fires raged across the town and artillery shells thumped into residential districts every few minutes.
Islamic State (Isis) fighters have Kobani under attack from the east, south and west — the northern edge of the town is fenced in by the Turkish border. The heaviest shelling yesterday fell on the eastern suburbs, with the attackers appearing to concentrate their efforts on a strategic communications tower on a hilltop overlooking the town.
Observers fear that the battle for Kobani, which is populated largely by ethnic Kurds, could end in a massacre if Isis is able to seize control.
Yesterday was a national holiday in Turkey, one day before Eid celebrations began, and hundreds of people gathered on the dusty southern plains to spend their day off watching the battle over the border unfold. Ranged across a hillside, barely 200 metres beyond the border fence, the plight of the people of Kobani was clearly laid out for the rapt audience to see.
The shells and tank fire poured in all morning from Isis positions in Aslan Dash, four miles to the east of the town. Every few minutes another round smacked into the densely packed neighbourhoods that surround Kobani’s strategic high point, each one sending a plume of white smoke and dust into the sky.
An eerie silence that followed the muezzin’s call to midday prayers did not last long. A crackle of gunfire broke the calm and, a few minutes later, the assault from Isis’s second position, to the west of Kobani, began.
Many of those watching from Turkey have a direct interest. The people here, like those across the border, are Kurdish, and the man-made border between Syria and Turkey has not broken the ties of kinship between the people who have lived for generations on either side of it.
Ismail, who had climbed on to a flat-roofed building to watch the battle, said that he had 15 friends and relatives inside Kobani fighting with the YPG, the Kurdish militia.
Kurdish volunteers from Turkey have been quick to join the YPG since Isis began advancing towards Kobani, but they are outnumbered and outgunned. As Isis’s heavy artillery shells hurtled towards their positions, all that the Kurds could respond with were bursts of rifle fire and an occasional rocket-propelled grenade.
On Thursday evening, the YPG moved the remaining civilians out of the town to prepare for street-to-street fighting. A few elderly or disabled residents remained, unable to flee on foot.
One resident, Hamid Sheikho, said that his elderly father had stayed in Kobani, and he had been unable to contact him since Thursday evening. “Islamic State have surrounded our neighbourhood,” he said. “He has only a little food and water left in their house, and now I don’t know whether he is alive or dead.”
Should Kobani fall, Isis will control an unbroken 200km (125 mile) stretch of Syria’s border with Turkey, from Tel Abyad in the east to Jarablus in the west.
Turkey has found itself unwillingly sucked into this battle. Kobani sits so close to the border that several artillery rounds have landed on Turkish soil in recent days.
Ankara could enter the fray after the Turkish parliament approved military action in Syria, and President Erdogan has promised to do “whatever it takes” to save Kobani.
There are signs that operations may soon begin. Bulldozers have moved into place along the border, ready to construct a series of berms and trenches, and within hours of the vote being passed, a convoy of lorries carrying Turkish tanks trundled through Gaziantep, 90 miles to the west of the Kobani border crossing.
For the town’s defenders, however, Turkish intervention would still have felt a long way off as the battle raged yesterday. The tanks had not arrived by mid-afternoon, and there were no signs of international airstrikes.
By 2pm the fighting had grown fiercer, the thuds and pops that had punctuated the morning became almost constant.
As another artillery round thumped into the town centre, four young men who had been watching from the Turkish side began sprinting towards the border. The ones who stayed behind urged them on: “yalla shabab, yalla” — “faster guys, faster!”
Three were not fast enough. A Turkish armoured personnel carrier sped towards them, forcing three of them back to where they started.
One, though, managed to outrun the vehicle. He scrambled through the wire fence and then on over the fields towards the chaos engulfing Kobani.
It was his last-ditch effort to prevent the seemingly inevitable fall of Kobani. A group of men parked their car near the border, facing towards the town so that they could watch the battle as if they were at a drive-in movie theatre.
They didn’t want to give their names; they barely wanted to talk. They had fled Kobani 15 days earlier, taken their families to safe places in the nearby city of Sanliurfa, and now they had come back here to see their worst fears realised. All four wept quietly as they watched their town go up in flames.
“What have the Kurds done to the world for us to be punished like this now?” said one, as another shell screamed towards his neighbourhood. “The terrorists have turned Kobani into their playground.”