BEIRUT – Islamic militants using weapons they recently seized in neighboring Iraq intensified an offensive against Kurdish areas in northern Syria as they fight to expand the territory under their control, activists said Thursday.
The clashes came as a Syrian watchdog group said the death toll in Syria’s three-year conflict has climbed to 171,000, reflecting the relentless bloodletting in a civil war that appears no closer to being resolved. Nearly half of the dead were civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Members of the Islamic State group and Kurdish fighters have been fighting each other for a year, but the Kurds were usually the instigators until earlier this month when the balance of power appears to have tipped in favor of the Sunni extremists because of the large amounts of weapons they brought from Iraq into Syria.
Islamic State fighters captured several Kurdish villages and killed dozens of fighters in the area this week, according to activists.
The clashes come after the Islamic State group seized territories straddling Syria and Iraq and declared a self-styled Islamic caliphate. Most of the land was seized in June during a push across Iraq. They captured large amounts of weapons left behind by Iraqi troops, including U.S.-made armored personnel carriers, Humvees and artillery.
Kurdish official Nawaf Khalil said members of the Islamic State group are trying to capture an area near the Turkish border that would link it with their positions in eastern Syria. He and other activists said the fighting is concentrated in the region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab.
Mustafa Osso, a Turkey-based Kurdish activist who has wide contacts in northern Syria, says the aim of the offensive is to take the entire Kobani area. Osso says those standing against the Islamic State group are mostly members of the People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.
“We have called for support from Kurds around the world,” said Khalil, an official with the party.
Osso said jihadi fighters are using mortar shells and artillery captured earlier in Iraq in their attacks on Kurdish areas.
Both Khalil and the Observatory said some of the dead Kurdish fighters were charred without suffering any bullets or shrapnel wounds. The Observatory said the burned bodies “have made doctors suspicious about the type of weapons used.”
On Wednesday, Islamic State group captured three villages near Kobani and pressed forward toward the border town.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s prewar population of 23 million. They are centered in the impoverished northeastern province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq.
Also Thursday, the U.N. Refugee Agency announced that it began an airlift operation to deliver emergency relief items from Damascus to 50,000 people in Hassakeh.
Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011 has led to the displacement of nearly a third of its prewar population of 23 million.
The Britain-based Observatory said in a statement Thursday that 171,000 people have been killed, raising the death toll from the 160,000 it announced in mid-May.
It said the dead included 39,036 government forces, 24,655 pro-government gunmen, 15,422 opposition fighters, 2,354 army defectors and more than 500 Lebanese fighters from the Hezbollah militant group that is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad. The rest were mostly civilians.
Meanwhile, the government sent more elite forces to the contested northern city of Aleppo as troops try to lay siege to rebel-held neighborhoods in the country’s largest city. Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial center, has been carved up since an opposition offensive began in mid-2012.
Aleppo is the last large urban area that Syrian rebels hold after losing territory to government forces in other parts of Syria over the past year.
Government troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have been steadily seizing control of the city’s entrances in recent days, according to activists in the city.