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The Islamic State Tried to Seize a Town Right After the Ceasefire Took Effect in Syria

Kurdish forces repelled an Islamic State assault on the city of Tal Abyad that was launched just hours after a "cessation of hostilities" began in Syria.

by Tess Owen
Feb 27 2016, 6:19pm

YPG fighters walk with their weapons near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad in the northern Raqqa countryside. (Photo by Rodi Said/Reuters)

Just hours after an internationally-brokered "cessation of hostilities" took effect at midnight on Saturday in Syria, Islamic State (IS) fighters tried to recapture the Kurdish-controlled town of Tal Abyad near the border with Turkey.

Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the YPG militia that governs the strategically important town, told Reuters that the Kurdish forces were able to "crush" the IS attackers. Warplanes from the US-led coalition also reportedly launched 10 airstrikes to help repel the assault. At least 45 IS fighters and 20 Kurdish militia fighters were killed in the battle, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.

The attack came shortly after most warring factions across Syria began holding their fire as part of a deal negotiated by the US and Russia. IS and the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front are not included in the truce, which means the US-led coalition, Russia, and Syrian regime forces can continue to strike them. A Russian senior defence official told reporters at a press conference in Moscow that all of the country's warplanes in Syria would be grounded on Saturday. Russia has promised to indefinitely suspend airstrikes in the "green zone," where groups that have accepted the cessation of hostilities are in control.

Related: At 11th Hour, UN Security Council Demands That Syria's Warring Parties Adhere to Ceasefire

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and 97 rebel and militant groups have said they will abide by the ceasefire, and while much of the country was said to be relatively calm on Saturday, there were several incidents that suggested the fighting is far from over.

Syrian state media reported at least six people killed and several wounded in two suicide car bomb attacks near the government-held town of Salamiyeh. One of the attacks was claimed by IS. Syrian state media also reported shelling in a residential area of Damascus, but said the shells were fired by "terrorist groups" entrenched in Jobar and Douma, two opposition-held Damascus suburbs, according to the Associated Press. Three children were killed and 12 more wounded in an IS attack in the Joura neighborhood of the eastern Deir al-Zor province.

Watch the VICE News dispatch Kurds Assert Control of Hasakah: The Battle for Rojava:

Clashes were also reported between Assad's forces and IS in Aleppo province, with reports of losses on both sides. There were also reportedly clashes between Russian forces and al Nusra rebels in Latakia province. Overall, however, fighting came to a halt in much of the country. "In Damascus and its countryside… for the first time in years, calm prevails," said Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A rebel fighter told Reuters that Syrian regime forces briefly fired artillery at a village in Aleppo province, but also said that, for the most part, "there is calm."

"Yesterday at this time there were fierce battles," the fighter said. "It is certainly strange, but the people are almost certain that the regime will breach the truce on the grounds of hitting Nusra."

Related: A Ceasefire Is Beginning in Syria — Except Where It Won't

The biggest battle was the failed IS assault on Tal Abyad, a city that has seen its share of troubles during five years of war in Syria. In the summer of 2014, IS militants captured the town and hoisted their black flag at the border crossing with Turkey. One year later, the Kurdish YPG militia launched an offensive backed by coalition airstrikes and successfully recaptured the town in July. The IS fighters fled with hospital equipment, electricity generators, and water pumps, but left behind mementos of their brutal rule, including a block of wood used for beheadings and a cage where people caught smoking tobacco were tortured.

The IS-linked Aamaq news agency reported on Saturday that IS fighters launched a "surprise attack" on several areas in northern Raqqa province, where Tal Abyad is located. Turkish security forces told Reuters that IS launched an attack on the town on two fronts, and that they could hear gunfire and explosions over the border for several hours.

Xelil, the YPG spokesman, claimed that some of the IS attackers came from across the Turkish border, but Turkish security forces said that was impossible because they had recently ramped up security measures to prevent illegal crossings. The Turkish military said it had deployed 14 F-16s to patrol the border on Friday.

Xelil said the YPG was able to "crush this attack and encircle the attackers," and that all of the IS fighters were killed.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen