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Backed Syrian fighters seize parts of IS 'capital' Raqqa

Backed Syrian fighters seize parts of IS 'capital' Raqqa

USA special operations forces are on the ground alongside Syrian Kurdish allies in Raqqa where they've begun their advance into the Islamic State's de-facto capital.

"The SDF captured the western half of the Al-Sabahiya neighbourhood and are reinforcing their positions there", the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group told AFP on Saturday.

Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group's territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and officials say Baghdadi is steering clear of both, hiding in thousands of square miles of desert between the two.

Syrian military forces, trained and armed by the US, appear to have used white phosphorus in or near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in recent days, causing concern for the wellbeing of civilians in the area.

Smoke rises from the al-Mishlab district at Raqqa's southeastern outskirts.

In a statement sent to Reuters, coalition spokesman Colonel Joseph Scrocca said the militants' resistance had been "minimal" outside the city and that they were retreating "to protect their fortifications inside the city".

Since the launch of the battle, SDF has been able to successfully penetrate two neighborhoods within the city.

After its capture by IS in 2014, Raqqa city emerged as a key hub for IS's operations in Syria, neighbouring Iraq and beyond.

Syrian Democratic Forces troops pictured in February 2017 leaving Deir Ezzor to encircle Raqqa.

Iraqi forces have retaken much of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city the hardline group seized in June 2014 and from which Baghdadi declared himself "caliph".

The U.S. -led coalition estimates that Raqqa is defended by 3,000 to 4,000 jihadists.

While it has advanced steadily against ISIL inside east and west Raqqa, it has made less progress on the northern front, where ISIL fighters are using a military base and adjacent sugar factory to defend the approach into the city. Since October 2016, Iraqi forces have fought off asymmetrical drone attacks, improvised explosive devices, and engaged in street to street fighting.

Clashes between Islamic State fighters and Russian-backed Syrian forces are also heating up in the Euphrates Valley, giving Damascus and its backers in Moscow an opening to expand Mr. Assad's grip on Syria.

An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under IS rule in Raqqa, including 80,000 who fled there from other parts of the country.

We sent several questions to Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. Joint Task Force which heads an worldwide coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but we did not receive a response in time for publication.


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