Iraq’s forces drive IS militants from key town

FILE – In this file photo taken Thursday, June 19, 2014, al-Qaeda-inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi army Humvee at a checkpoint outside an oil refinery in Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq. The government forces on Friday, Nov. 14, drove Islamic State militants out from their remaining strongholds inside the oil refinery town of Beiji, two security official said, in a key victory over the terror group that has captured much of northern and western Iraq in a stunning summer offensive.                (AP Photo, File)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces drove Islamic State militants out of a strategic oil refinery town north of Baghdad on Friday, scoring their biggest battlefield victory since they melted away in the face of the terror group’s stunning summer offensive that captured much of northern and western Iraq.

The recapture of Beiji is the latest in a series of setbacks for the jihadi group, which has lost hundreds of fighters to airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition in a stalled advance on the Syrian town of Kobani. On Friday, activists there reported significant progress by Kurdish fighters defending the town.

Iraqi security officials said government forces backed by allied militiamen took control of Beiji and also lifted a monthslong Islamic State siege on its refinery — Iraq’s largest. However, two military officials reached by telephone in Beiji late Friday said there was still some fighting going on at the refinery, but reinforcements had been sent in and Iraqi forces were poised to retake it.

The security officials said the army used loudspeakers to warn the small number of residents still holed up inside the town to stay indoors while bomb squads cleared booby-trapped houses and detonated roadside bombs.

Also Friday, a suicide bomber tried to drive an explosive-laden bulldozer into a Beiji college used by government forces, the military officials said. The bomber was shot dead as he approached the gate, but still managed to detonate his explosives, killing three soldiers and wounding seven, they said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Beiji will now likely be a base for staging a push to take back Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit to the south, after government forces tried to retake it earlier this year. That campaign stalled and the city remains in Islamic State hands.

In Syria, meanwhile, activists reported advances by Kurdish fighters against Islamic State militants in the strategic town of Kobani. Reached by telephone, activist Barzan Isso said the situation has improved for the town’s defenders following the recent airdrop of weapons by the United States and the arrival of heavily armed Kurdish fighters from Iraq to join the town’s defense.

“The YPG made major progress in the Mashta Nour hill that overlooks parts of the city and they were also able to cut the main road leading to Aleppo,” he told The Associated Press, using an acronym for a main Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units.

The fighting, he said, was now inside Kobani’s so-called “security quarter,” an area that houses the town’s main police station and other local government offices. The area was captured last month by the Islamic State but the Kurds have recently retaken parts of it.

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