As the death toll rises from a surprise attack by Islamic State (IS) fighters on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, witness and victim testimony obtained by VICE News indicates the militants targeted civilians with drive-by killings and massacred entire families during a brazen suicide mission.
Early on Thursday morning, IS fighters detonated a series of car bombs in Kobane, just across the border from Turkey in northern Syria. Dozens of IS fighters — reportedly disguised in the uniforms of Free Syrian Army soldiers and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — entered the town. IS had been driven from Kobane months earlier, and the town was miles from current front lines, giving many residents a sense of security. Many people who ventured out of their homes out of curiosity after hearing the explosions were gunned down. In some incidents, Kurdish-speaking IS fighters reportedly knocked on the doors of houses, beckoning families outside and into a hail of bullets.
By Saturday, the remaining IS forces in Kobane had either been killed or fled the town, according the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). But the SOHR reported that at least 148 civilians had been slaughtered in the preceding two days, including “dozens of women and children.” Some 54 IS fighters were reported killed, while the SOHR said 16 Kurdish troops and police had died. Reached by telephone, one local NGO worker told VICE News the death toll was “rising by the hour.”
VICE News obtained testimony collected by a local NGO worker who interviewed victims at a hospital in Turkey. International human rights workers corroborated the accounts as legitimate.
Ibrahim Jasim, the manager of a bakery in Kobane, said Thursday morning began as usual, but quickly descended into bloodshed.
“I left my house to go to the baker, as usual, unaware of what was going on,” he said. “When I arrived to the bakery I saw the bodies of my three workers outside of the bakery. They had most likely been targeted by snipers from the MSF building, as the baker is visible from there,” he added, referring to a Doctors Without Borders hospital captured by IS.
“When I was standing there, a sniper fired at me and wounded me in the chest,” he said.
Jasim survived, and was brought across the border into Turkey, where he spoke from a hospital.
A 30-year-old woman named Fatma, also speaking from a hospital just across the Turkish border, said she was on her way to Amel hospital in Kobane early Thursday to retrieve the body of her father, who had passed away hours earlier of natural causes. As she entered the town’s center in a car with her husband and one of his friends, IS gunmen pulled up alongside and began firing wildly into the vehicle. The militants, she said, yelled “Kouffars! We have come for you,” as they shot, referring to them as infidels.
‘They shot my husband in the head, his brains splattered in front of my eyes on the car.’
“They shot my husband in the head, his brains splattered in front of my eyes on the car,” Fatma said. Her husband’s friend was also killed by gunfire. Fatma, who is more than eight months pregnant, said she threw herself out of the car and was rescued by Kurdish YPG soldiers. Taken to Turkey, doctors were able to deliver her baby in an emergency procedure, and both survived. Her other children remained in Kobane, and she was not sure of their fate.
Another woman, 19, said that her entire family was shot to death outside of their home in Kobane. The woman was herself wounded, and she wept uncontrollably as she spoke from a hospital inside Turkey. She was unable to count the number of family members who perished.
A woman in her mid-50s, who did not give her name, said IS fighters captured her from her house and held her hostage. “I was taken by ISIS to the field hospital — there outside the hospital they shot me in the leg and told me to call my children to come and take me away,” she said, using another common abbreviation for IS. “I called my children but could not reach them.
“Thank God, later I learned that this was a tactic they used to get people out so they could kill them,” the woman said, explaining that she was able to escape and crawl to the Turkish border, where she was recovering in a hospital. The fate of her family was unclear.
Locals also reported that IS snipers set up around Kobane to pick off civilians who ventured outside. One man in his mid-30s said he was shot in the chest as he drove a wounded YPG fighter to a military hospital.
On Saturday, YPG fighters exploded a school in Kobane that had been controlled by IS fighters, the SOHR reported. According to Reuters, YPG fighters were combing the streets of the town for any remaining militants.
It is still unclear how the IS fighters were able to infiltrate Kobane. Given the strong Kurdish grip on the area, the mission appeared to be suicidal and intended to kill civilians. The IS siege of Kobane ended in January after Kurdish forces, aided by US-led coalition airstrikes, captured the city. In recent weeks, YPG and Syrian Arab rebel groups have scored victories against the extremists. Last week, IS was driven from the strategic border town of Tal Abyad, cutting off vital northern supply lines to IS Syrian headquarters in Raqqa. Many analysts saw the attack in Kobane as retribution for those defeats.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford