US official visits northern Syrian town of Kobani

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BAGHDAD (AP) – 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.-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. He was also accompanied by U.S. Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, the head of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, and Marcel Lettre, the U.S. defense undersecretary for intelligence.

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

“Nothing substitutes for having eyes-on, face-to-face conversations on the ground,” McGurk told reporters after flying from Iraq to Rome for a meeting of the coalition countries fighting the Islamic State.

McGurk said he met a “diverse array” of Arabs, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen in northern Syria, as part of a long-planned trip aimed at assessing the ground campaign against IS.

He described a moving tour of Kobani where the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga were based amid the battle. In the center of the city, he said, it was “just incredible devastation.”

“We learned from those clearing the rubble that they’re still finding (IS) fighters,” McGurk said, saying 6,000 were killed in the fighting.

But outside the center, he said, “the place is coming back to life.” He said he saw markets open and residents showing their resilience. At a hospital, he also visited fighters wounded in a recent offensive against the Islamic State.

McGurk said he had other meetings in northern Syria, but declined to describe those.

McGurk, in a series of tweets, 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.

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 Obama 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 defense 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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