MURSITPINAR, Turkey, Oct 20, 2014 (AFP) - Washington made a first arms drop to Kurdish fighters battling jihadists for the Syrian border town of Kobane Monday as neighbouring Turkey said it was helping Iraqi Kurdish forces to join the fight.
The weapons were dropped by air as Ankara has refused to deliver arms by land to the Syrian Kurdish fighters defending Kobane, who have links with Turkey's outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
But in a shift of policy, Ankara announced on Monday that it was helping Iraqi Kurdish fighters -- who are not linked to the PKK -- to reinforce the town against a jihadist offensive now nearly five weeks old.
Washington has said repeatedly that the main priority in its campaign against the Islamic State group remains neighbouring Iraq, where the jihadists seized much of the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in June.
But a senior administration official said the arms drop was a recognition of the "impressive" resistance put up by the Kurdish fighters and the losses they were inflicting on IS.
Three C-130 cargo aircraft carried out what US Central Command called "multiple" successful drops of supplies, including small arms, provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq.
The supplies were "intended to enable continued resistance against ISIL's attempts to overtake Kobane," Central Command said, using an alternative acronym for IS.
The US-led coalition has carried out more than 135 air strikes against IS targets around Kobane but it was the first time that it had delivered arms to the town's defenders.
- 'We hope for more' -
The main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in Kobane swiftly welcomed the US arms drop, saying it would "help greatly" in the defence of the town.
"The military assistance dropped by American planes at dawn on Kobane was good and we thank America for this support," said People's Protection Units (YPG) spokesman Redur Xelil.
"It will have a positive impact on military operations against Daesh and we hope for more," he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Xelil declined to detail the weapons delivered but said there was "coordination" between US officials and YPG forces over the drop.
"Weapons have been sent according to their needs, and this is the first batch, and included heavy weapons," said Halgord Hekmat, a spokesman for Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, without providing further details on the arms.
IS militants launched their offensive on Kurdish fighters around Kobane on September 15, swiftly pushing them back to the town itself and sparking an exodus of 200,000 refugees over the border into Turkey.
But the Kurds have kept up a dogged resistance on the streets of the town, of which they currently control around half.
One senior administration official said that Kurdish fighters had put up an "impressive" effort in the face of IS, but cautioned that the security situation was "fluid".
Ankara has kept the YPG at arms length because of its links to the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in southeastern Turkey that has left some 40,000 people dead.
Just Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan again described the group as "terrorists".
But Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced on Monday that Turkey was helping Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces to join the fight to defend Kobane.
"We are assisting peshmerga forces to cross into Kobane," Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara, adding that talks on the issue were ongoing but without giving further details.
"We have no wish at all to see Kobane fall."
The YPG spokesman said no peshmerga had yet arrived in Kobane and declined to comment on the Turkish plan.
- Turkey told in advance -
Cavusoglu did not give a direct comment on the US air drops to the YPG, but he also did not give any indication that Turkey was angered by them.
A senior US administration official said Ankara had been informed in advance of the air drop.
President Barack Obama spoke to Erdogan on Saturday "and was able to notify him of our intent to do this and importance we put on it," the official said.
"We understand the longstanding Turkish concern with the range of groups, including Kurdish groups, they have been engaged in conflict with and in peace talks with."
Turkish analyst Sinan Ulgen said that the fact that Washington had bolstered Kobane's defence without any direct Turkish role was actually a good thing for Erdogan.
The Turkish president has been engaged in a stuttering peace process with the PKK since it declared a ceasefire in March last year, which has been threatened both by Turkish nationalist criticism and Kurdish anger over Kobane.
Protests among Turkey's own large Kurdish majority earlier this month left at least 34 people dead.
"The biggest danger for him in the short term is Kobane's falls as that would throw in doubt the peace process" said Ulgen, who chairs Istanbul-based think tank the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy.
"From that point of view a third party -- in this case the United States -- reinforcing Kobane allows him to keep up the rhetoric against Kurdish 'terrorists'."