By Sylvia Westall
BEIRUT: ISIS has committed its second-biggest civilian massacre inSyria with an attack on the town of Kobani and a nearby village, killing at least 146 civilians so far, an activist group monitoring the war said Friday.
Fighting between the Kurdish YPG militia and ISIS fighters who infiltrated the town at the Turkish border Thursday continued into a second day, said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatoryfor Human Rights.
A separate ISIS attack on government-held areas of the northeastern city of Hassakeh was reported to have forced 60,000 people to flee their homes, the United Nations said, warning that up to 200,000 people may eventually try to flee.
The twin attacks launched in the early hours of Thursday marked an ISIS attempt to go back on the offensive after Kurdish-led forces, supported by U.S.-led airstrikes, advanced to within 50 km (30 miles) of Raqqa city, the de facto capital of its self-declared "caliphate."
In both cases, ISIS has picked targets where it is complicated for the U.S.-led alliance to provide air support. In Kobani, also known as Ain al-Arab, aerial bombardment risks civilian casualties in residential areas targeted in the attack.
The U.S.-led alliance has meanwhile avoided bombing ISIS targets in areas controlled by President Bashar Assad, such as government-held Hassakeh - one of his last footholds in the northeast.
The United States and its European and Arab allies have been carrying out airstrikes on ISIS since last year in an effort to roll back the group that has seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq. Washington has ruled out cooperation with Assad.
The attack on the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani and the nearby village of Brakh Bootan marked the biggest single massacre of civilians by ISIS since it killed hundreds of members of the Sunni Sheitaat tribe in eastern Syria last year, the Observatory's Abdulrahman said.
The assault included at least three suicide car bombs. The dead included the elderly, women and children, Abdulrahman said.
ISIS fighters were reported to number in the low dozens and entered the town in five cars disguised as members of the YPG and Syrian rebel groups.
Fighting was ongoing inside the town, Abdulrahman said.
Kobani was the site of one of the biggest battles against ISIS in 2014. The Kurdish forces eventually drove the militants out of the town in January with the help of U.S. airstrikes and Iraqi Kurdish fighters after months of fighting.
ISIS advanced rapidly last month, seizing cities in Syria and Iraq. But recent Kurdish advances in Syria shifted the momentum once more. ISIS fighters have often adopted a tactic of attacking elsewhere when they lose ground.
The group wrested control of at least one district of Hassakeh city in its raid there Thursday. The city is divided into zones run separately by the Syrian government and the Kurdish administration that controls the YPG.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said an estimated 50,000 people had been displaced within Hassakeh city while 10,000 had left northwards towards Amuda town, close to the Turkish border.
Speaking to Syrian state TV, the governor of Hassakeh said the city was "safe and secure." He urged people to return home.
But the Observatory said fighting continued in the city. Government forces were carrying out airstrikes targeting areas south of Hassakeh controlled by ISIS, it added.
Assad has since late March lost additional areas of northwestern, southern and central Syria to a patchwork of armed groups, including ISIS, other jihadis, and rebels who profess a more secular vision for Syria.
The government has meanwhile focused on shoring up control over the main population centers of the west, including Damascus, with crucial military support from the Iranian-backed Lebanese group, Hezbollah.