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Kurds launch offensive to take Sinjar from ISIS

Sinjar, Iraq (CNN) Plumes of smoke blackened the sky above Sinjar as Kurdish forces, backed by intense coalition air support, tried Thursday to take back the northern Iraqi town from ISIS.

The operation includes up to 7,500 Peshmergas — the Kurdish military force — who are attacking the city from three sides to take control of supply routes, according to the Kurdish Region Security Council .

CNN senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is with one of the three fronts of fighters who launched their liberation operation early Thursday morning against a backdrop of airstrikes.

“A pitch-black sky was lit up by a lot of coalition airstrikes following days of bombing. At dawn, a large procession of Peshmerga started snaking their way through Sinjar mountain and behind it,” Paton Walsh said.

The coalition strikes were pounding the strategic city itself, he said, with four different columns of smoke darkening the horizon above: “The strikes on Sinjar almost make the sky over it look black. There’s a vast amount of air power — more intense than the fight for Kobani.”

Kobani is a Syrian border town that was wrested back from ISIS militants earlier this year after four months of fierce fighting that left parts of it entirely flattened.

Peshmerga and coalition unity

Reclaiming Sinjar is one big step toward dividing the “caliphate” that ISIS claims it is establishing across the region.

The artery that passes through the town links the Iraqi city of Mosul — ISIS’ prized possession — with cities it holds in Syria.

Paton Walsh said the highway was a key goal for the Kurdish fighters, who were equipped with vehicles ranging from pickup trucks to armored Humvees.

“One of the targets of this offensive is the highway that runs through Sinjar, known as Route No. 47 to many. Now that’s very important, not only of course because of what it does to liberate the population of Sinjar — those who’ve not fled ISIS rule having endured it now for over a year — but also because it is a vital supply route towards Mosul, another key target of any future coalition offensive,” he said.

About 1.5 million people still live in Mosul, where prices are rising and activists report hunger.

“By controlling Highway 47, which is used by Da’ish to transport weapons, fighters, illicit oil, and other commodities that fund their operations, the Coalition intends to increase pressure on Da’ish and isolate their components from each other,” it said in a statement. Da’ish is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

“This operation will degrade Da’ish’s resupply efforts, disrupt funding to the terrorist group’s operations, stem the flow of Da’ish fighters into Iraq, and further isolate Mosul from Ar Raqqah,” said coalition spokesman Col. Christopher C. Garver. The Syrian city of Ar Raqqah, also spelled Raqqa, is ISIS’ de facto capital.

By Thursday afternoon, the Kurdish fighters pushing toward Sinjar had taken control of a number of villages near the Iraqi town.

“Along that highway there’s one village, Kabara, that’s been repeatedly hammered by airstrikes in the past hour or so and a lot of Kurdish forces have managed to move into the main road,” Paton Walsh said. Tweets by Kurdish fighters showed that almost all the vehicles in the village had been “burned to a crisp.”

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