BEIRUT (AP) -- Islamic State militants launched major attacks in northern Syria on Thursday after a string of recent setbacks, storming government-held areas in a mostly Kurdish city and setting off deadly car bombs as they pushed into a border town they were expelled from six months ago.
The two-pronged counteroffensive left dozens of people dead or wounded. On one front, Islamic State fighters advanced early in the morning into the northeastern city of Hassakeh, long split between Syrian Kurds and government forces, capturing parts of it.
The other push was into the Syrian border town of Kobani, which famously resisted a months-long IS assault before the extremists were driven out in January. An activist group said 12 people died in fighting Thursday in Kobani — the first time in six months the IS had managed to enter the town along the Turkish border — and that the militants had detonated three car bombs.
In the Kobani attack, the extremists donned Syrian rebel uniforms and carried flags of the mainstream Free Syrian Army to deceive the town's Kurdish defenders, said Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG. In Hassakeh, Khalil said IS militants attacked government-held neighborhoods on the southern edge of the town, capturing some areas.
Syrian state TV reported intense clashes inside Hassakeh's southern neighborhood of Nashawi. According to the report, IS fighters killed several people they captured in the city, including the head of a military housing institution. It said the militants sustained many casualties, including the commander of the group, who is a foreign fighter. An activist group said many people in neighborhoods engulfed in the fighting fled to safer areas in the city.
IS tried to storm the city earlier this month and reached its southern outskirts before facing strong resistance from Syrian government troops who pushed them away.
The Hassakeh and Kobani attacks came just days after YPG fighters and their allies captured the Islamic State stronghold of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey and the town of Ein Issa to the south. Kurdish fighters have been advancing since January under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
In neighboring Iraq, troops drove IS militants from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in April, but lost Ramadi, the capital of the western Anbar province, last month.
The IS group captured large parts of both Syria and Iraq a year ago. A major IS attack was widely expected during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.
In an audio message Tuesday, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged Sunni Muslims to wage jihad and seek martyrdom during Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting.
"Attack them everywhere and shake the ground beneath them," he said. It was not possible to verify the recording, but it resembled previous audio statements from the group.
Al-Adnani referred to the recent battlefield setbacks for IS, saying the faithful "may lose a battle or battles and may lose towns and areas, but will never be defeated."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three car bombs were set off in the Kobani attack. Ghalia Nehme, a commander with the Kurdish Women's Protection Units, told The Associated Press by telephone from inside the town that "a group of fighters deployed in some areas of Kobani."
"We are defending a position now," she added.
Another Kurdish official in Kobani, Idriss Naasan, said the fighting was intense in the morning but became more sporadic by midday. He said the extremists appear to have infiltrated from the villages south of Kobani.
"We hear cracks of gunfire every now and then," Naasan said around noon. He added that explosions could still be heard but that it was unclear what caused them.
The Observatory, which relies on activists inside Syria, said 35 civilians and Kurdish fighters were killed in Kobani on Thursday, along with 14 IS extremists.
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Twitter that 96 people had been wounded in the fighting in Kobani and that four people were killed Thursday. The casualty figures he provided conflicted with those reported by Kurdish fighters and Syrian officials, but such discrepancies are normal in the chaotic aftermath of violent events.
Two Turkish officials said Thursday's attack in Kobani involved a suicide bomber who detonated his car near the border gate.
Surveillance footage seen by The Associated Press showed a fiery explosion rocking Kobani in the dim light of dawn. The official said the video came from one of the 24 cameras monitoring the border crossing. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Syrian state TV said the extremists crossed from the Turkish side of the border into Kobani. Kurtulmus dismissed such allegations as "lies" and "propaganda," according to Turkey's Anadolu news agency.
Also on Thursday, IS fighters entered the nearby village of Barkh Botan, opening fire on civilians and killing 20 residents, the Observatory said. Syria's state news agency SANA said 22 people were killed in the shooting, including women and children.
The IS group also released a video showing the beheading of 12 members of the rival Islam Army rebel faction who had been captured by the extremists. The group warned its other rivals to repent or face the same fate.
IS militants also destroyed a lion statue dating back to the 2nd century in the city of Palmyra, home to famed 2,000-year-old ruins, which the extremist group captured last month, said Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the government's Antiquities and Museums Department.
He said the statue, discovered in 1975, had stood at the gate of the town's museum, and had been placed inside a metal box to protect it from damage.