US-backed forces advance against IS in Syria’s Raqa
Progress inside the Islamic State stronghold has been hampered by extensive mining
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