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Islamic State: US-led coalition hammers oil targets as it awaits new members

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Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel/U.S. Air Force/AP

(Read caption) A formation of US Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq as part of US-led coalition airstrikes on the Islamic State group and other targets in Syria, Sept. 23, 2014. US-led airstrikes targeted Syrian oil installations held by the militant Islamic State group overnight and early Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.

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The US-led coalition against the self-declared Islamic State anticipated strengthening its ranks Friday, with Britain's Parliament debating participation in airstrikes in Iraq and other European countries considering playing a role.

Overnight, warplanes from the United States and France moved forward, hitting IS oil refineries and other targets in eastern Syria.

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It was the second day of coalition strikes targeting what is considered a key source of financing for the jihadist group – up to an estimated $2 million a day in black market sales. It's the third day of such airstrikes in Syria after weeks of an anti-IS campaign in Iraq.

The strikes overnight and early Friday hit two oil areas in Deir el-Zour Province, the Associated Press reports. The Tink oil field and the Qouriyeh oil-producing area were targeted, as was IS headquarters in the town of Mayadeen, the AP cites the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying. There were unconfirmed reports of casualties.

The Syrian Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said there was another apparent coalition air raid on IS positions outside the city of Hassakeh in northeastern Syria near the Iraqi border, according to the AP.

The strikes there targeted another oil production area, as well as vehicles the militants had brought in from Iraq and tried to bury in the ground to protect, according to Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman.

Activists say the militants have cut back the number of gunmen manning checkpoints, apparently fearing more strikes. There has also been an exodus of civilians from Islamic State strongholds.

"Everywhere where there are ISIS buildings, the people living around these buildings are leaving. They are moving far from ISIS buildings, either to other villages or to other areas in the same cities," said Abdurrahman, using an alternative name for the group. "This has happened in Raqqa, in Deir el-Zour and in many towns and villages."

However reports from Turkey’s border with Syria suggested that the strikes have not halted an offensive by IS militants against Kurdish villages seen as interfering with IS control over a contiguous stretch of territory in northern Syria.

Early Friday, IS fighters edged toward the Kurdish border village of Kobane, which they have besieged on three sides for more than a week. Sounds of gunfire and artillery echoed across the border into Turkey, Reuters reports. At least two shells landed on Turkish soil, witnesses said.

The assault has pushed an estimated 150,000 mostly Kurdish men, women, and children to flee into Turkey, which is struggling to accommodate the huge influx of refugees.

Just Thursday, Kurdish sources reached by phone in Kobane said they were withstanding the onslaught with the help of Turkish Kurds who had come to join the fight. But Friday the jihadists appeared to have taken control of a hill west of Kobane from which YPG fighters had been attacking them, Reuters reports.

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In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had recalled Parliament from recess after obtaining broad political support for joining the air campaign in Iraq, told British lawmakers the Islamic State was guilty of "staggering" brutality and posed a direct threat to Britain, Reuters reports.

"Is there a threat to the British people? The answer is yes," Cameron told parliament, saying he thought action would need to last "years" to be effective.

"This is not a threat on the far side of the world. Left unchecked we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven intention to attack our country and our people."

Two other European nations, Denmark and Belgium, are considering Friday whether to join the coalition as well, the AP reports.

NATO member Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria, is seen as an important missing piece in the anti-IS coalition. The country denies giving any form of support to IS, but its territory is thought to have served as an important conduit of fighters and funds to the militant group.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden sought to overcome the recently strained US-Turkish relationship with direct appeals to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – by phone from Air Force One and in person on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, USA Today reports.

Obama, speaking to Mr. Erdogan by phone, reportedly praised Turkey for its work caring for the Syrian refugees, while Mr. Biden met the Turkish leader in private after posing for a photo. 

It was a remarkable turnabout in U.S. -Turkish relations, considering that just two months ago Erdogan complained publicly that Obama never spoke to him anymore. The two had gone nearly six months without so much as a phone call.

So why the sudden turnabout?

"It's fairly straightforward: The administration is pulling every lever to encourage Turkey to do more to counter ISIS," said Steven Cook, a Turkish expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"There is something to be said for appealing to Erdogan's sense of importance," Cook said. "Had President Obama not come to the conclusion that ISIS was a major threat, I'm not sure this charm offensive would be happening."