WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said it had air-dropped arms to Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State militants near Kobani on Sunday in what appeared to be the Pentagon’s first public acknowledgment it has delivered lethal aid to the rebels.
The U.S. Central Command said it had delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the Syrian rebels who for weeks have sought to stave off an onslaught by Islamic State fighters that have overrun swathes of Syria and Iraq this year.
The “resupply” of rebel fighters is the latest escalation in the U.S. effort to help local forces beat back the radical Sunni militant group in Syria after years of trying to avoid getting dragged into the more than three-year Syrian civil war.
The United States began carrying out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq in August and about a month later started bombing the militant group in neighbouring Syria, in part to prevent it from enjoying safe haven on Syrian territory.
In a brief statement, the U.S. Central Command said U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft “delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies that were provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq and intended to enable continued resistance against ISIL’s attempts to overtake Kobani,” using an acronym to refer to Islamic State.
The Central Command said 135 U.S. air strikes near Kobani in recent days, combined with continued resistance against Islamic State on the ground, had slowed the group’s advances into the town and killed hundreds of its fighters.
“However, the security situation in Kobani remains fragile as ISIL continues to threaten the city and Kurdish forces continue to resist,” the statement said.
The Central Command mentioned no new air strikes around Kobani, whose strategic location has blocked the radical Sunni Muslim militants from consolidating their gains across northern Syria.
A spokesman for Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants in Kobani later confirmed on his Twitter feed that a “large quantity of ammunition and weapons” had reached the town.
U.S. officials, speaking in a conference call, described the weapons delivered as “small arms” but gave no details.
The United States gave Turkey advance notice of its plans to deliver arms to the Syrian Kurds, a group Turkey views with deep distrust because of its links to Turkish Kurds who have fought a decades-long insurgency in which 40,000 people were killed.
“President Obama spoke to Erdogan yesterday and was able to notify him of our intent to do this and the importance that we put on it,” one senior U.S. official told reporters.
“We understand the longstanding Turkish concern with the range of groups, including Kurdish groups, that they have been engaged in conflict with,” he added. “However, our very strong belief is that both the United States and Turkey face a common enemy in ISIL and that we need to act on an urgent basis.”
Three U.S. C-130 transport aircraft dropped 27 bundles of weapons and medical supplies to the Syrian Kurds, said a second U.S. official, adding the planes left Syrian air space unharmed and that the majority of the bundles had reached their targets.
Reporting by Mohammad Zargham, Warren Strobel and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel