US-backed forces ad­vance against IS in Syria’s Raqa

Progress in­side the Is­lamic State strong­hold has been ham­pered by ex­ten­sive min­ing

Muscat Daily - - REGION -

Jazra, Syria - US-backed forces said on Mon­day they had seized a new neigh­bour­hood from the Is­lamic State group in the ex­trem­ist 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 ex­trem­ist strong­hold since last year, and they pen­e­trated the city in June.

“The Al Yar­muk district was lib­er­ated yes­ter­day (Sun­day),” the SDF’s spokes­woman for the Raqa op­er­a­tion, Ji­han Sheikh Ahmed, said. 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, 50km 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 casu- al­ties, fight­ers and civil­ians, caused by mines,” an SDF com­man­der said, with­out giv­ing his name. “Yes­ter­day (Sun­day), 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 on 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 ISheld districts. “When­ever there is a lull in the fight­ing, they leave to­wards ar­eas held by the SDF.”

The Ob­ser­va­tory, a Bri­tain­based mon­i­tor­ing group, es­ti­mates the US-backed force cur­rently holds around 35 per cent 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 airstrikes, 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.


Syr­i­ans flee their homes on the western front­line of Raqa on Satur­day


French For­eign Min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Drian (left) with his Qatari coun­ter­part Mo­hammed bin Ab­dul­rah­man al Thani in Doha on Satur­day

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