US-backed forces take neigh­bour­hood in Raqa

Arab Times - - FRONT PAGE -

JAZRA, Syria, July 17, (Agen­cies): USbacked forces said Mon­day they had seized a new neigh­bour­hood from the Is­lamic State group in the ji­hadist strong­hold of Raqa in north­ern Syria.

The Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers, have been press­ing an oper­a­tion to cap­ture the ji­hadist strong­hold since last year, and they pen­e­trated the city in June.

“The Al-Yar­muk district was lib­er­ated yes­ter­day,” the SDF’s spokes­woman for the Raqa oper­a­tion, Ji­han Sheikh Ahmed, told AFP.

Al-Yar­muk is a large neigh­bour­hood on the south­west­ern out­skirts of the city.

“The oper­a­tion is con­tin­u­ing but there are many fierce clashes,” Ahmed said, speak­ing in the town of Ain Issa, 50 kms (30 miles) north of Raqa.

“We are tak­ing steady and sound steps. What is im­por­tant to us is not speed, but lib­er­at­ing civil­ians and elim­i­nat­ing DAESH (IS),” she added.

An AFP re­porter in Jazra sub­urb on the west­ern out­skirts of the city on Mon­day saw US-led coali­tion forces at a joint po­si­tion with SDF fight­ers fir­ing ar­tillery in the di­rec­tion of IS posts deeper in­side Raqa.

Progress in­side Raqa has been ham­pered by ex­ten­sive min­ing of neigh­bour­hoods, which has slowed ad­vanc­ing SDF fight­ers and also had dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for civil­ians try­ing to flee.

“There have been many ca­su­al­ties, fight­ers and civil­ians, caused by mines,” an SDF com­man­der told AFP, without giv­ing his name.

“Yes­ter­day, we buried six civil­ians af­ter a mine ex­ploded as they were try­ing to es­cape,” he added.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said the SDF had ad­vanced in Al-Yar­muk but did not yet fully con­trol the district.

The mon­i­tor said the mili­tia held the west­ern por­tion of the district but that heavy fight­ing was con­tin­u­ing.

It also re­ported that hun­dreds of civil­ians had fled IS-held parts of the city to­wards ar­eas now con­trolled by the SDF in the past 48 hours.

The SDF on its so­cial me­dia ac­counts said Mon­day its forces “man­aged to free about 500 civil­ians who were trapped in­side the Al-Daraiya and Al-Ta­yar neigh­bour­hoods, as well as 150 oth­ers from the Old City” in­side Raqa.

Ob­ser­va­tory director Rami Ab­del Rah­man said a steady stream of civil­ians was flee­ing IS-held dis­tricts.

“When­ever there is a lull in the fight­ing, they leave to­wards ar­eas held by the SDF,” he said.

The Ob­ser­va­tory, a Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor­ing group, es­ti­mates the US-backed force cur­rently holds around 35 per­cent of the city.

The SDF be­gan an oper­a­tion to cap­ture Raqa in Novem­ber 2016 and spent months tak­ing ter­ri­tory around the city be­fore fi­nally en­ter­ing it.

It has been backed by heavy US-led coali­tion air strikes, in­clud­ing sev­eral on Mon­day that killed at least three civil­ians, ac­cord­ing to the Ob­ser­va­tory.

More than 330,000 peo­ple have been killed in Syria since the con­flict be­gan with anti-gov­ern­ment protests in March 2011.

Turk­ish-backed rebels clashed with Kur­dish fight­ers from a US-backed al­liance in north­west­ern Syria on Mon­day in es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence be­tween the two sides, of­fi­cials and a mon­i­tor­ing group said.

The clashes took place around the vil­lage of Ain Daqna and the nearby Me­nagh air base north of Aleppo, while Turk­ish forces stepped up shelling po­si­tions in other ar­eas, the of­fi­cials and the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said.

“There are big clashes hap­pen­ing on

the Ain Daqna axis, be­tween us and the Turks and their mer­ce­nar­ies,” Ro­jhat Roj, a spokesman for the Kur­dish YPG mili­tia said.

Mostafa Bali of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), a Kur­dish and Arab force which is dom­i­nated by the YPG, said some Turk­ish-backed rebels had been killed and cap­tured.

Both the YPG and SDF have re­ceived US sup­port, and are backed by Wash­ing­ton in its fight against Is­lamic State in Raqa, fur­ther east.

The Bri­tish-based Ob­ser­va­tory, which mon­i­tors the war us­ing sources on the ground, said the clashes and shelling were an at­tempt by the Turk­ish side to ad­vance.

Syr­ian rebels said this month they were prepar­ing to join the Turk­ish mil­i­tary in a ma­jor new of­fen­sive against Kur­dish forces in north­west­ern Syria.

Tur­key views the YPG as an ex­ten­sion of the Kur­dish PKK group which is wag­ing an in­sur­gency in south­east­ern Tur­key. Ankara’s oper­a­tion “Euphrates Shield”, launched last year as an in­cur­sion into Syria to sup­port rebel groups there, has fo­cused on driv­ing both Is­lamic State and the YPG away from the bor­der.

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