TIME Libya

Democrats, Republicans Spar Over Benghazi Investigation

Trey Gowdy, Elijah Cummings
Trey Gowdy, left, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and Elijah Cummings, the ranking member, confer as the panel holds its first public hearing to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 17, 2014 J. Scott Applewhite—AP

Finger pointing and accusations of political grandstanding mar the third public hearing on the investigations into the Benghazi attacks

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — A special House committee investigating the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, began last year with promises of bipartisanship and cooperation.

Eight months later, the panel has devolved into finger pointing and accusations of political grandstanding and power plays.

As the panel holds its third public hearing Tuesday, Democrats complain that the panel’s Republican chairman has excluded them from crucial steps in the investigation, while Republicans say Democrats are playing politics.

In a strongly worded letter, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, said the panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., has used different standards for Republicans and Democrats and has held secret meetings with witnesses from the State Department and other agencies.

“Perhaps most importantly,” Cummings wrote in a letter last week, Gowdy has “withheld or downplayed information when it undermines the allegations we are investigating.” The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter and two others sent by Democrats to Gowdy.

Gowdy said in response late Monday that he has the authority to unilaterally subpoena witnesses, but he promised to give Democrats a week’s notice before issuing such a subpoena.

“Bipartisanship is a two-way street,” Gowdy said in a letter to Cummings. “I have known you to be a fair partner and expect for that cooperation to continue.”

Committee spokesman Jamal Ware was less diplomatic.

He said Gowdy was disappointed that Democrats had released “correspondence that attempts to politically characterize sources’ private discussions with the committee.”

As chairman, Gowdy “has operated the Benghazi Committee in a more-than-fair and fact-based manner,” Ware said, adding that Gowdy will continue to address any legitimate Democratic concerns.

“He will not, however, allow the committee’s investigation to be hamstrung by politics.”

Such an outcome appeared increasingly likely, as a bipartisan tone set last May when the 12-member committee was created appeared to dissipate.

Gowdy and Cummings continued the bipartisan tone at a hearing in September and again in December, but behind the scenes have disagreed sharply.

Gowdy has said he will pursue the facts of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. post in eastern Libya that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador, and three other Americans.

“Facts are neither Republican nor Democrat,” Gowdy said when the panel was created last May.

Gowdy’s approach has drawn criticism from some conservatives, who accuse him of failing to stand up to what they see as resistance from the Obama administration to produce documents and witnesses related to the events in Benghazi, a topic that has been the subject of numerous congressional investigations.

A report by the House Intelligence Committee report last fall found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attacks. Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the panel determined there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

Cummings, who has clashed with Republicans such as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., over Benghazi and other issues, has previously praised Gowdy for a bipartisan approach to the Benghazi inquiry.

But he said in a letter sent Friday that he and his colleagues have grown increasingly concerned that they are being shut out by the GOP majority. Cummings cited a GOP-approved rule that allows Gowdy to meet privately with committee witnesses and unilaterally issue subpoenas for witnesses or documents “without any public discussion or debate, even if there is significant disagreement from other members of the committee.”

He and other Democrats “simply ask for a public debate and a vote by committee members on these actions when there is significant disagreement,” Cummings wrote.

The Jan. 23 letter is the third Democrats have sent to Gowdy since November. None of the letters had previously been made public.

In one letter, dated Nov. 24, Cummings told Gowdy the committee inquiry has “taken a sharp turn for the worse and is becoming what you strenuously insisted it would not – another partisan investigation of the Benghazi attacks that blocks Democrats from meaningful participation.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he was “deeply skeptical” that the Benghazi committee would operate fairly, but nonetheless agreed to serve on the panel as one of the Democratic members.

“Now, after learning that we have been excluded from parts of the investigation, and that the majority has held secret interviews with key witnesses and withheld information . I fear this skepticism may have been all too justified,” Schiff said.

He called on Gowdy to lay out the scope of his investigation immediately and adopt a set of rules “that will give Congress and the country the assurance that this will not be yet another politicized and partisan exercise at taxpayer expense.”

TIME Japan

Japan Special Envoy Hopeful About Release of Hostage, Pilot

APTOPIX Japan Islamic State
A woman, along with other protesters, holds a placard and chant "Free Goto" during a rally outside the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo on Jan. 27, 2015 Eugene Hoshiko—AP

Japan is coordinating with Jordan to secure the release of Japanese Kenji Goto and a Jordanian pilot

(TOKYO) — A Japanese envoy in Jordan expressed hope that both Japanese hostage Kenji Goto and a Jordanian pilot held by Islamic militants will return home “with a smile on their faces,” as questions rose Tuesday over the government’s handling of the crisis.

In the Jordanian capital, Amman, Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama seemed determined, saying he believed there were “firm ties” between Japan and Jordan.

“I hope we can all firmly work hard and join hands to cooperate, and for the two countries (Japan and Jordan) to cooperate, in order for us to see the day when the Jordanian pilot and our Japanese national Mr. Goto, can both safely return to their own countries with a smile on their faces,” Nakayama, a lawmaker send to coordinate efforts in Amman to save two Japanese hostages of the Islamic State group, said late Monday night.

It was the first mention by a Japanese official of Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, who has been held by the extremist Islamic State group after crashing in December. It wasn’t clear when the pilot’s possible release had entered the picture.

The issue of a prisoner swap is sensitive, given Jordanian concern over the pilot, and Nakayama emerged from the Japanese Embassy on Tuesday with no new updates.

“There are other parties involved, so I don’t want to comment on details of the negotiations,” he said.

Goto, a journalist, was seized in late October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, an adventurer who was captured by the militants last summer.

Over the weekend, an unverified video surfaced showing a still photo of Goto, 47, holding what appears to be a photo of Yukawa’s body. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Goto, saying his captors wanted the release of Sajida al-Rashawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 60 people.

The message retracted a demand for payment of $200 million in ransom for the two Japanese, made in an earlier online message, and said Yukawa had been killed. It threatened to kill Goto unless al-Rashawi was released.

Japanese officials are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa was killed. However, the new message varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, and The Associated Press could not verify its contents and whether they actually reflect the group’s demands.

Securing the release of al-Rashawi would be a propaganda coup for the Islamic State, enabling the group to reaffirm links to al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Rashawi fled but was captured after her explosive belt failed to detonate in the attack in Jordan. She pleaded not guilty.

In Tokyo on Tuesday, an interfaith gathering of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians holding placards and banners reading, “Free Goto” and “I am Kenji,” gathered outside the parliament.

“Islam is not about someone calling himself Muslim and committing the crime of killing. This is not Islam,” said Muhammad Yusuf Othman, a Muslim teacher.

In Japan, some are critical of Goto and Yukawa for traveling to the risky area. Some also are criticizing Abe, the prime minister, for pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, saying it may have contributed to the crisis.

Despite Japan’s heavy reliance on Middle Eastern oil and gas, its diplomatic pipeline in the region is thin, experts say.

“When it comes to Islamic affairs and Islamic law, the government’s expertise and connections are extremely weak,” said Ko Nakata, a Muslim convert and former Islamic expert at the Japanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Last week, he offered to try to help secure the hostages’ release but there was no public response from the government.

Abe’s envoy Nakayama, 44, is a former advertisement agency employee with a sports science degree and hardly any experience in Middle East, though his official profile shows he has joined defense and national security panels.

As parliamentary debate resumed Tuesday, lawmaker Seiji Maehara of the opposition Democratic Party questioned Abe on how the government has handled the hostages’ cases since when Yukawa was seized in August.

He noted Abe’s explicit mention of the Islamic State in an announcement of $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the extremists — something also mentioned in the videos issued by the militants.

Japan has no military role in the conflict, but Abe has been pushing to expand the role for Japan’s troops — one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist constitution adopted after the nation’s defeat in World War II.

But Abe defended his performance. The $200 million contribution was aimed at “providing food and medicine to save the lives of more than 10 million people, including refugees and children who have lost their homes, shivering in cold and suffering from illnesses.”

“Our contribution has won high praises from the international community,” he said.

“If we fear the risks so much that we succumb to the terrorists’ threats, we won’t be able to make any humanitarian contributions to countries surrounding the area of conflict,” Abe said. “Our country will never bow to terrorists. We will continue our humanitarian support in our own unique way.”

TIME Argentina

Argentine President Seeks Overhaul of Intelligence Services

APTOPIX Argentina Prosecutor Killed
A television screen in a restaurant shows a nationally televised address by Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires on Jan. 26, 2015 Ivan Fernandez—AP

Argentina's intelligence agency has been dissolved

(BUENOS AIRES) — President Cristina Fernandez called on Congress to dissolve Argentina’s intelligence services in the wake of the mysterious death of a prosecutor, strongly denying his accusations that she had sought to shield former Iranian officials suspected in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center.

In a nationally televised address late Monday, her first since the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman hours before he was to give potentially explosive testimony on the alleged cover up, Fernandez said her proposal to create a new spy agency would be presented to lawmakers by the end of the week.

She did not say who might have killed Nisman, but in recent letters posted on social media she had suggested that rogue intelligence agents may have orchestrated the death in a plot against her government. In the speech, she provided no new details of the alleged plot and Fernandez herself oversees the intelligence agencies in question.

She said reforming the clandestine services was a “national debt” the South American country has had since the return of democracy in 1983. Argentina had several years of a brutal dictatorship, and Fernandez suggested that the problems of today had their roots in the years of that military government.

While government officials had previously labeled Nisman’s allegations as absurd, Monday’s speech was the first time Fernandez had taken them on directly.

“It’s unreasonable to think our government could even be suspected of such a maneuver,” said Fernandez, who spoke while sitting in a wheelchair because of a fractured ankle.

Nisman, 51, was found dead Jan. 18 in the bathroom in his apartment, a bullet in his right temple. A .22 caliber gun was found next to him. His death came days after he gave a judge a report alleging Fernandez secretly reached a deal to prevent prosecution of former Iranian officials accused of involvement in the 1994 bombing of Argentina’s largest Jewish center. The attack killed 85 people and injured more than 200. She allegedly reached the deal in exchange for economic and trade benefits with Iran.

Iran has denied the accusation.

Nisman’s death has produced anti-government protests and a myriad of conspiracy theories, ranging from suicide to the involvement of Iranian intelligence agents.

Appearing rested and calm, Fernandez began with a spirited defense of all her government had done to try to solve the 1994 case.

She lamented that more than 20 years later nobody had been convicted or even detained. She noted that her predecessor, husband and former President Nestor Kirchner, had appointed Nisman to the case after years of paralysis.

She said a 2013 memorandum of understanding with Iran, which many in the country have bitterly criticized, was aimed at obtaining cooperation with the Middle Eastern powerhouse to finally seek justice for the bombing.

Fernandez, 61, said the new “Federal Intelligence Agency” would have a director and deputy, and only a few in government would have access to the agency heads, apparently a critique of a system where many in Congress have contact with intelligence officials.

In her two letters the last week, Fernandez suggested Nisman’s death was a plot against her government possibly orchestrated by intelligence services, which had fed false information to Nisman.

In her first letter, published Jan. 19, she suggested that Nisman committed suicide. Three days later, however, she did an about-face, suggesting that he had been killed.

Argentina’s political opposition criticized Fernandez’s latest comments.

Before there are any reforms to the intelligence services, the government “should explain the 11 years it has managed” them, Margarita Stolbizer, an opposition member of Congress, told Todo Noticias.

“The speech was filled with imprecise (statements) and lies,” Stolbizer said. “She did not give answers to the doubts about this government nor about the content of Nisman’s denouncement.”

Employing the fiery rhetoric she is known for, at the end her televised speech, Fernandez told listeners that she had a message for her countrymen.

“I will not be extorted, I am not afraid” of being cited by judges or denounced by investigators, she said. “They will not make me move even a centimeter from what I have always thought.”

TIME Terrorism

Failed Iraqi Bomber Named in Islamic State Hostage Crisis

Sajida al-Rishawi
In this Nov. 13, 2005 file photo, Iraqi Sajida al-Rishawi, confesses on Jordanian stat- run TV about her failed bid to set off an explosives belt inside one of the three Amman hotels targeted by al-Qaeda. Jordanian TV/AP

The woman the Islamic State wants in exchange for Japanese hostage Kenji Goto is Iraqi citizen Sajida al-Rishawi

(BEIRUT) — In the moments after her husband blew himself up in the ballroom of a Jordanian hotel as part of an al-Qaida plot, Sajida al-Rishawi fled the scene of chaos wearing her own explosive belt.

The 2005 assault on three hotels in Amman, the worst terror attack in Jordan’s history, killed 60 people. Al-Rishawi, an Iraqi, was sentenced to death. But now, almost a decade later, she has emerged as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations over Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group, a breakaway group from al-Qaida in Iraq that orchestrated the Jordan attack.

The Islamic State group last week threatened to kill Kenji Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer fascinated by war, unless it received a $200 million ransom.

On Saturday, a day after a 72-hour deadline for the ransom passed, an online message purportedly issued on behalf of the Islamic State group claimed Yukawa had been beheaded and demanded the release of al-Rishawi, 44.

“They no longer want money,” the message said. “So you don’t need to worry about funding terrorists. They are just demanding the release of their imprisoned sister Sajida al-Rishawi.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told national broadcaster NHK on Sunday that the online message likely was authentic, though he said the government still was reviewing it. U.S. President Barack Obama later called Abe to offer his condolences over what he called the “brutal murder” of Yukawa.

The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the online message, which varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group.

But securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a major propaganda coup for the Islamic State, following months of battlefield setbacks — most recently in the northern Syrian town of Kobani where Kurdish fighters on Monday managed to drive out the extremists after months-long fighting and hundreds of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

It would also allow the group to reaffirm its links to al-Qaida in Iraq, which battled U.S. troops and claimed the Jordan attack. The Islamic State group had a brutal falling out with al-Qaida’s central leadership, but still reveres the global terror network’s onetime Iraqi affiliate and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.

On Nov. 9, 2005, al-Rishawi and her newlywed husband, Ali al-Shamari, entered the ground-floor ballroom of the Raddison SAS hotel in Amman, which was hosting hundreds gathered for a wedding reception. Al-Shamari set off his explosive belt among crowd. Al-Rishawi fled.

Al-Zarqawi later claimed the attack and mentioned a woman being involved, leading Jordanian officials to arrest her. Several days later, al-Rishawi appeared on Jordanian state television, opening a body-length overcoat to reveal two crude explosive belts.

“My husband detonated (his bomb) and I tried to explode (mine) but it wouldn’t,” al-Rishawi said during the three-minute television segment. “People fled running and I left running with them.”

Later at the trial, al-Rishawi pleaded not guilty and said through her lawyer that she never tried to detonate her bomb and was forced to take part in the attack. But an explosives expert testified that the trigger mechanism on al-Rishawi’s belt had jammed.

Al-Rishawi was sentenced to death by hanging and an appeals court later ratified her sentence, describing her as “guilty beyond doubt of possessing explosives and having had the intention and the will to carry out terrorist attacks whose outcome is destruction and death.”

Her sentence can be overturned by Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Dana Jalal, an Iraqi journalist who follows jihadi groups, said the Islamic State group could be demanding al-Rishawi’s release because she is a woman and comes from a powerful Iraqi tribe that claims many senior Islamic State group members.

“Sajida was close to al-Zarqawi and this gives her special status with Daesh,” Jalal said, using an alternate Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

TIME Crime

Bodies Found Near Vehicle of Missing Georgia Couple

From left: Elrey "Bud" Runion and his wife, June Runion Cobb County Police Department/AP

The bodies haven't officially been identified

(ATLANTA) — The car belonging to a Georgia couple who disappeared after traveling to meet a man claiming to sell a classic auto has been found in a lake with two bodies nearby.

Telfair County Sheriff Chris Steverson said Monday that the bodies were found near the vehicle 69-year-old Elrey “Bud” Runion and his wife, 66-year-old June Runion, had been traveling in toward McRae, in southern Georgia. Steverson says the bodies haven’t officially been identified and authorities have contacted the Runion family. He said the car was found not far from McRae.

Authorities have said 28-year-old Ronnie Adrian “Jay” Towns has been arrested on charges of giving false statements and criminal attempt to commit theft by deception.

Steverson says Towns was the last person to speak with the couple by phone.

TIME National Security

Ex-CIA Officer Convicted of Leaking Classified Iran Operation to New York Times Reporter

Jeffrey Sterling, 47, was convicted of leaking information to journalist James Risen to get back at the CIA for perceived mistreatment.

A jury has convicted a former CIA officer of leaking classified details of an operation to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions to a New York Times reporter.

Jurors convicted 47-year-old Jeffrey Sterling, of O’Fallon, Missouri, of all nine counts he faced in federal court on Monday.

Prosecutors said Sterling disclosed the mission to journalist James Risen to get back at the CIA for perceived mistreatment.

Sterling was the handler for a Russian-born CIA asset nicknamed Merlin, who was at the center of an operation to funnel deliberately flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints to the Iranians.

Risen wrote about the operation in a 2006 book. Risen refused to divulge his sources, and prosecutors eventually dropped their effort to force Risen to testify.

Sterling denied leaking anything to Risen, and said it was more likely Risen learned about the mission from Senate staffers who had been briefed on it.

TIME russia

Russia’s Credit Rating Downgraded to Junk Status

Vladimir Putin Attends National Forum The State and Civil Society
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the National Forum "The State and Civil Society" on Jan. 15, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

Standard and Poor's dropped the country's rating to BB+ from BBB-

Standard & Poor’s rating agency on Monday downgraded Russia’s credit grade by one notch to junk status, citing a weakened economic outlook.

The agency dropped the rating to BB+ from BBB- as it sees the country’s financial buffers at risk amid a slide in the country’s currency and weakening revenue from oil exports.

“In our view, the Russian Federation’s monetary policy flexibility has weakened, as have its economic growth prospects,” it said.

Russia’s economy has been hit hard by the double impact of weaker prices for its energy exports as well as Western sanctions.

The Russian currency tumbled on the downgrade, dropping nearly 7 percent to 68.5 rubles to the dollar.

Standard & Poor’s said that Russia’s financial system is weakening, limiting room for maneuver for Russia’s Central Bank. It said the bank “faces increasingly difficult monetary policy decisions,” while also trying to preserve incentives for growth.

The Russian economy is expected to contract by 4 to 5 percent this year for the first time since President Vladimir Putin took the helm in 2000.

Capital outflows, which averaged $57 billion annually during 2009 to 2013, soared to $152 billion last year. “Stresses could mount for Russian corporations and banks that have foreign currency debt service requirements without a concomitant foreign currency revenue stream,” the rating agency said.

There was no immediate comment to the downgrade by the Russian government, which have sought to play down the anticipated move.

Prior to the announcement, Putin had a meeting with Cabinet members on anti-crisis measures. He said the government should focus on cutting spending, keeping inflation under control and making sure that the country doesn’t waste its hard currency reserves.

TIME Spain

At Least 10 Dead After Greek F-16 Crashes in Spain During NATO Training

Spain Military Plane Crash
Smoke rises from a military base after a plane crash in Albacete, Spain on Jan. 26, 2015. Josema Moreno—AP

(MADRID) — A Greek F-16 fighter jet crashed into other planes on the ground during NATO training in southeastern Spain Monday, killing at least 10 people, Spain’s Defense Ministry said.

Another 13 people were injured in the incident at the Los Llanos base, which sent flames and a plume of black smoke billowing into the air, a Defense Ministry official said.

Most of the victims were not believed to be Spaniards, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ministry rules preventing him from being named.

The two-seat jet was taking off when it crashed into an area of the base where other planes involved in the NATO exercise were parked, the ministry said in a statement.

Emergency crews were working to douse the blaze and determine how much damage there was to other planes involved in the NATO exercise, the ministry said.

A NATO spokeswoman declined to disclose details, referring questions to Spanish and Greek military officials.

The Spanish ministry said the jet that crashed was taking part in a NATO training exercise called the Tactical Leadership Program.

According to a U.S. Air Force Website, TLP was formed in 1978 by NATO’s Central Region air forces to advance their tactical capabilities and produce tactics, techniques and procedures that improve multi-national tactical air operations.

The first TLP course was located at Fuerstenfeldbruck Air Base, Germany. It has been based at the Spanish base since June 2009.

TIME

Man Shoots Himself Outside News Corp. Building in New York

The building houses Fox News, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal

(NEW YORK) — Police say a man has apparently shot himself to death outside the News Corp. building in midtown Manhattan.

The 41-year-old man died after the shooting at about 9 a.m. Monday.

Authorities aren’t certain what prompted the shooting, which occurred outside the building that houses Fox News, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. The media conglomerate News Corp. is controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

It’s not clear if the man had any ties to News Corp. or if he was just standing outside the building.

A weapon was recovered at the scene, and no one else was injured.

Traffic was snarled in Midtown as police investigated.

TIME Syria

ISIS Nearly Pushed Out of Syrian Town

Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), on Jan. 16, 2015.
Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), on Jan. 16, 2015. Halil Fidan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

ISIS "is on the verge of defeat" in Kobani

(BEIRUT) — Kurdish fighters backed by intense U.S.-led airstrikes pushed the Islamic State group almost entirely out of the Syrian town of Kobani on Monday, marking a major loss for extremists whose hopes for easy victory dissolved into a bloody, costly siege that seems close to ending in defeat.

Fighters raised a Kurdish flag on a hill in the border town near Turkey that once flew the Islamic State group’s black banner. It represents a key conquest both for the embattled Kurds and the U.S.-led coalition, whose American coordinator had predicted that the Islamic State group would “impale itself” on Kobani.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and senior Kurdish official Idriss Nassan said the Islamic State group had been nearly expelled, with some sporadic fighting on the eastern edges of the town.

“The Islamic State is on the verge of defeat,” said Nassan, speaking from Turkey near the Syrian border. “Their defenses have collapsed and its fighters have fled.”

In September, Islamic State fighters began capturing some 300 Kurdish villages near Kobani and thrust into the town itself, occupying nearly half of it. Tens of thousands of refugees spilled across the border into Turkey.

By October, Islamic State control of Kobani was so widespread that it even made a propaganda video from the town featuring a captive British photojournalist, John Cantlie, to convey its message that Islamic State fighters had pushed deep inside despite U.S.-led airstrikes.

The town, whose capture would have given the jihadi group control of a border crossing with Turkey and open direct lines between its positions along the border, quickly became a centerpiece of the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared it would be “morally very difficult” not to help Kobani.

The U.S.-led air assault began Sept. 23, with Kobani the target of about a half-dozen airstrikes on average each day, and often more. More than 80 percent of all coalition airstrikes in Syria have been in or around the town. At one point in October, the U.S. air dropped bundles of weapons and medical supplies for Kurdish fighters — a first in the Syrian conflict.

Analysts, as well as Syrian and Kurdish activists, credit the air campaign and the arrival in October of heavily armed Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq, who neutralized the Islamic State group’s artillery advantage, for bringing key areas of Kobani under Kurdish control.

Nassan said U.S.-led coalition strikes became more intense in the past few days, helping Kurdish fighters in their final push toward Islamic State group positions on the southern and eastern edges of the town.

The U.S. Central Command said Monday that it had carried out 17 airstrikes near Kobani over the last 24 hours that struck Islamic State group infrastructure and fighting positions.

Nassan said he was preparing to head into Kobani on Tuesday and expected the town to be fully free by then.

Gharib Hassou, a representative of Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, based in Southern Kurdistan, said fighting was still going in “two or three streets,” adding that most of the militants withdrew to the town of Tal Abyad to the east.

“There are a lot of dead bodies … and they left some of the weapons,” he said. Kurdish fighters also suffered high casualties, he said, adding that more reinforcements will be sent to reinforce control over the town.

Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, said the Kurdish force was led by Mohammed Barkhadan, theKobani commander of the main Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Barkhadan is a well-known militia leader among Kurds and in 2013 he led an offensive that ousted Islamic militants out of the northern Syrian town of Ras Ayn, Aburrahman said.

Since mid-September, the battle for Kobani has killed some 1,600 people, including 1,075 Islamic State group members, 459 Kurdish fighters and 32 civilians, the Observatory reported earlier this month. The Islamic State group, increasingly under pressure, has carried out more than 35 suicide attacks in Kobani in recent weeks, activists say.

Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group militants, in November predicted Kobani would be a defeat for the extremists.

The Islamic State group “has, in so many ways, impaled itself on Kobani,” he said in an interview in Ankara with the Turkish daily Milliyet.

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