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IS jihadists close in on key Syria border town

THE LEVANT – US warplanes launched multiple strikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria on Tuesday, seeking to turn up the heat on jihadists as Britain carried out its first air raids against the group.

IS militants closing in on a key town near the Turkish border were among the targets of nearly a dozen US air raids in Syria, the Pentagon said.

US planes also bombed IS jihadists in neighbouring Iraq as Kurdish forces launched pre-dawn attacks on three fronts in a bid to recapture ground lost to the group last month.

Britain said its jets had destroyed an IS heavy weapons post and a machinegun-mounted vehicle in the country’s first air strikes against the group in Iraq.

IS fighters have captured large parts of Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” and committing kidnappings and beheadings.

The group on Tuesday freed more than 70 Kurdish school children it abducted in northern Syria in May, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

It was not immediately clear why IS decided to free the children, part of a group of about 153 students snatched in May after taking school exams.

Their release came as IS fighters penetrated within two to three kilometres (about one or two miles) of the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab near the Turkish border, according to the Observatory.

It was the closest the militants had come to the town, known as Kobane in Kurdish, since they began their advance nearly two weeks ago, sending tens of thousands of mostly Kurdish refugees across the border.

NATO member Turkey, after months of caution in the fight against IS, has decided to harden its policy.

The government was poised to ask parliament later this week for authorisation to take military action against the militants. However what this may entail is so far unclear.

Iraq Kurds advance 

In Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga forces battled to claw back land from jihadists, as US warplanes launched 11 strikes at several locations, destroying armed vehicles and IS positions.

The peshmerga struck at the border town of Rabia, north of jihadist-controlled Mosul, and south of oil hub Kirkuk, commanders said.

They also attacked the town of Zumar, near the reservoir of Iraq’s largest dam, which has been a key battleground between the Kurds and the jihadists.

Peshmerga spokesman Halgord Hekmat said IS had been ousted from 30 positions.

US war costs rise 

With the United States now conducting what it says are “near continuous” strikes in both Iraq and Syria, a Washington-based think-tank warned that the costs of the campaign to the US taxpayer could swiftly escalate.

US aircraft have flown more than 4,000 sorties in the air war against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria since August, including surveillance flights, refuelling runs and bombing raids, a military officer said Monday.

The Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated that when US air strikes against IS in Syria got under way last week, Washington had already spent as much as $930 million (735 million euros) on the campaign against IS.

If air strikes continue at a moderate level, the cost will run at between $200 million and $320 million a month, but if they are conducted at a higher pace the monthly cost could rise to as much as $570 million, the think-tank projected.

The United Nations says about 191,000 people have been killed since an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erupted in 2011, escalating into a war that brought jihadists flocking to the country.

The Observatory said that at least eight people were killed on Tuesday, among them four children, when Syrian regime helicopters dropped explosives-packed barrel bombs on a district of northern Aleppo.

Members of the civil defence in the rebel-held east of the city rushed to the scene, using bulldozers and pickaxes to lift chunks of rubble and twisted metal out of the way.

The number of Syrians in urgent need of food aid has shot up to more than six million, or more than one in four of the population, UN agencies said Tuesday.

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