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Former Iraqi pilots train IS fighters on MiG jets

Diaa Hadid
Associated Press

Beirut — The Islamic State group is test flying, with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots, several fighter jets captured earlier from air bases belonging to the Syrian military, a Syrian activist group said Friday.

The report by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights could not be independently confirmed, and U.S. official said they had no reports of IS militants flying jets in support of their forces on the ground.

The new development came as the Islamic State group in Iraq pressed its offensive on the strategic city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad. The militants appeared to be taking advantage of the focus of U.S.-led airstrikes on the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, along the border with Turkey, to concentrate on their second front in Iraq.

The Observatory said the planes, seen flying over the Jarrah air base in the countryside of Aleppo province in eastern Syria this week, are believed to be MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets. Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, said the planes have been flying at a low altitude, “apparently to avoid being detected by Syrian military radar in the area.”

He described the flights as a “moral victory” for the Islamic State group, saying “the jets could not fly much further without being knocked down by the (international) coalition.”

The report on the IS flights in Aleppo added yet another layer of complexity to the Mideast crisis in the wake of the onslaught by the Islamic State militants.

The U.S. and its allies are bombing IS bases in Syria and Iraq, where the extremists have seized large swaths of territory.

During its blitz, the Islamic State group is known to have seized fighter jets from at least one air base it captured from the Syrian army in the eastern Raqqa province earlier this year. Militant websites had posted pictures of IS fighters posing next to the fighter jets, but it was unclear if they were operational.

Abdurrahman said Islamic State members were being trained by Iraqi officers who had joined the group and who were once pilots under Saddam Hussein.

In January, Islamic State militants also captured the Jarrah air base in Syria after bitter clashes with rival extremists and Syrian rebel groups. A mix of several Islamic rebel groups battling Syrian President Bashar Assad — including al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front — had seized the base from government troops in early 2013.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, said he has no operational reports of IS militants flying jets in support of their forces on the ground.

Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command who is directing the fight in Iraq and Syria, told Pentagon reporters that he also has no information about Iraqi pilots defecting to IS.

However, an Iraqi intelligence official said the government in Baghdad is aware of several ex-Iraqi military officers going to Syria to train militants with the Islamic State group.

The militants acquired war planes from al-Tabaqa air base in Syria but did not get any when they toppled the Iraqi military in Mosul, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

Meanwhile, clashes between Syrian Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants continued on Friday in the town of Kobani, along the Syrian-Turkish border.

The Kurdish fighters have begun sharing information with the U.S.-led coalition to coordinate strikes against Islamic State militants there, a Kurdish official said.

The admission could further complicate relations between Washington and Turkey, which views the main Syrian Kurdish militia with suspicion because of its links to the Kurdish PKK insurgent group.

“There is direct coordination between Kurdish and American coalition forces,” Nawaf Khalil, spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, told The Associated Press. “That’s no secret. It began about a week ago,” he said.

The party’s armed wing, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, has been struggling to defend the town — also known under its Arabic name, Ayn Arab — against the Islamic State militants, despite dozens of U.S.-led airstrikes against the extremists.

Kurdish fighters provided “correct and credible intelligence” early on, building trust with the U.S.-led coalition, Khalil said. There was no immediate comment from U.S. military officials.

The battle for Kobani has emerged as a key test for the U.S.-led air campaign against the IS group in Syria, with the vast majority of strikes conducted in and around the embattled town.

Turkey has ground forces and tanks deployed just across the border but has declined to intervene. It views the Syrian Kurdish YPG as an extension of the PKK, which has waged a long and bloody insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and NATO.

Khalil’s acknowledgment of coordination came after State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that U.S. officials had met with members of the Syrian Kurdish party for the first time.

Khalil said the meeting took place last week in Paris, and that it wasn’t the first time the two sides had met. “The contact isn’t new, but the admission of it is,” he said.

He said the party had not publicized the meetings because it did not want to cause more strife between Ankara and Washington.