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Islamic State fighters tighten siege of Syria border; UK joins coalition

BAGHDAD: Islamic State fighters tightened their siege on a town on Syria’s border with Turkey on Friday despite US led air strikes aimed at defeating the militants in both Syria and Iraq.

Washington’s closest ally in the wars of the last decade joined the coalition at last on Friday after weeks of weighing its options: Britain’s parliament voted 542 to 43 to back Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to join air strikes on Iraq.

“This is not a threat on the far side of the world. Left unchecked, we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven intention to attack our country and our people,” Cameron told lawmakers.

Until this week France was the only Western country to answer President Barack Obama’s call to join the US-led campaign. But Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands have all joined since Monday and Denmark announced on Friday that it too would send planes.

Obama has sought to rally international support for a military coalition against Islamic State, a powerful force in Syria which swept through much of northern Iraq in June, slaughtering prisoners and ordering Shi’ites and non-Muslims to convert or die.

The campaign has brought Washington back to the battlefield in Iraq that it left in 2011, and into Syria for the first time after avoiding involvement during a civil war that began the same year. The coalition also includes several Arab states, all led by Sunni Muslims alarmed at the rise of Islamic State.

Islamic State has emerged as the most powerful Sunni militant group battling the Shi’ite-backed governments in Iraq and Syria. Its fighters are also battling against rival Sunni rebel groups in Syria and against Kurds in both Syria and Iraq, countries facing complex, multi-sided civil wars in which nearly every state in the Middle East has a stake.

French public support for the mission has surged this week after the beheading of a French tourist in Algeria by captors who said it was retaliation for French participation in strikes in Iraq.

Paris said it might also join US strikes in Syria although there was no plan yet to do so. European countries have so far only agreed to strike targets in Iraq, where the government has asked for help, and not in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has not given permission, although he has not objected.

The main battle in northern Syria has been visible from across the frontier in Turkey. The boom of artillery and bursts of machinegun fire echoed across the border, and at least two shells hit a vineyard on the Turkish side, though there were no immediate reports of casualties inside Turkey.

Islamic State fighters appeared to have taken control of a hill 10 km (6 miles) west of Kobani from where the YPG, the main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, had been attacking them in recent days.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said Islamic State fighters had also taken control of a village around 7 km to the east of Kobani.

The US military said its planes blew up four Islamic State tanks in eastern Syria and hit a number of targets in Iraq.

Assad’s Syrian government has not objected to the US-led campaign against some of his most powerful foes. Washington says it wants to defeat Islamic State without helping Assad remain in power, and hopes other anti-Assad groups can fill the vacuum. (Reuters)