U.S. official visits northern Syrian town of Kobani

BAGHDAD -- President Barack Obama's envoy to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group said he visited northern Syria over the weekend to review the ongoing fight against the extremist group, marking the first visit by a senior administration official to Syria since the beginning of the U.S.

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-led campaign against IS in August 2014.

A coalition official said Brett McGurk was joined by British and French officials in Kobani, where Kurdish forces aided by U.S.-led airstrikes drove back IS militants a year ago, handing the extremists one of their biggest defeats.

The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

McGurk, in a series of Tweets, said the visit was meant to assess progress in the campaign against IS and discuss the next steps in the Syria campaign with "battle tested" and multi-ethnic anti-IS fighters. He added that he paid his respects to over 1,000 Kurdish martyrs who died in the Kobani battle.

"ISIL terrorists do not stand a chance in the face of the resilient people of Kobani, Tikrit, Ramadi, and soon Raqqa and Mosul," he posted.

The battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani was a watershed in the war against the Islamic State group. Syrian Kurdish forces fought the militants in rubble-strewn streets for months as U.S. aircraft pounded the extremists from the skies.

The town became the centerpiece of the campaign against IS as dozens of TV crews flocked to the Turkish side of the border and from a hill, trained their cameras on the besieged town, recording plumes of smoke rising from explosions as the U.S.-led coalition pounded IS hideouts inside the town.

The militants were ultimately expelled from the town in January 2015. It was the Islamic State group's bloodiest defeat to date in Syria but the town was almost completely destroyed.

A U.S. official said McGurk met with a coalition of Arab and Kurdish commanders while in northern Syria. The group, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, has the backing of the U.S. and has emerged as the biggest fighting force against IS in northern Syria. The U.S. administration has sent a few dozen special operations forces to northern Syria to support it.

The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said McGurk also visited Kobani to honour those who lost their lives in defiance of the militants and meet with civilian administration officials as the one year anniversary of Kobani's liberation approaches.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors the conflict, also reported the visit by McGurk took place over the weekend. It said the delegation landed by helicopter in the Rmeilan air base in northeastern Syria.

Activists have reported that the American administration has recently been working on expanding the air base in Rmeilan village to serve as a military base for U.S. forces in northern Syria. Nasser Haj Mansour, a Kurdish defence official in Syria, also told the AP recently that U.S. personnel were renovating some airstrips built years ago by the Syrian government for small aircraft in case they are needed in the future.

U.S. officials have not confirmed the reports.


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