Friday 20 October 2017

US-backed Syrian fighters 'capture almost half of Raqqa from Islamic State'

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters walk past destroyed shops in Raqqa (Hussein Malla/AP)
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters walk past destroyed shops in Raqqa (Hussein Malla/AP)
A displaced child who fled fighting in Raqqa, carries a boy on her back in a refugee camp, in Ain Issa, northeast Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
General Rupert Jones, Deputy Commanding General of the Coalition Joint Task Force, right, speaks during a press conference at the Civil Council of Raqqa, in Ain Issa, northeast Syria, Sunday, July 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Sarah El Deeb, Bassem Mroue and Edith M Lederer

US-backed Syrian fighters have captured almost half of Islamic State's de facto capital of Raqqa, but the push into the city has slowed due to stiff resistance and large amounts of explosives planted by the extremists, a spokeswoman has said.

The assault on Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led fighting group, began on June 6 backed by US-led coalition air strikes and American troops advising the local forces.

Since then, the SDF has made steady advances from the eastern and western sides of the city, reaching the walled old quarter.

The fall of Raqqa, IS's self-proclaimed capital, would be a huge loss for the extremist group, which earlier this month lost the Iraqi city of Mosul. But much tougher fighting still lies ahead.

Army Col Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the coalition fighting Islamic State, said 45 percent of Raqqa is now under the control of the SDF.

In a series of tweets, he said the SDF cleared about nine square miles of terrain this past week fighting against "stiff, sporadic resistance" from IS militants entrenched in Raqqa.

General Rupert Jones, Deputy Commanding General of the Coalition Joint Task Force, right, speaks during a press conference at the Civil Council of Raqqa, in Ain Issa, northeast Syria, Sunday, July 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
General Rupert Jones, Deputy Commanding General of the Coalition Joint Task Force, right, speaks during a press conference at the Civil Council of Raqqa, in Ain Issa, northeast Syria, Sunday, July 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Meanwhile, senior UN humanitarian official Ursula Mueller told the Security Council by video from Jordan on Thursday that an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people remain in Raqqa.

She said the city is encircled and "there is no way for them to get out".

Since April 1, more than 200,000 people have fled their homes in the area around Raqqa, she said. The figure includes more than 30,000 displaced just this month as Syrian fighters try to oust the extremists.

Nisreen Abdullah, the Kurdish spokeswoman, said the pace of the advance into Raqqa has slowed because of massive amounts of explosives laid by IS fighters.

A displaced child who fled fighting in Raqqa, carries a boy on her back in a refugee camp, in Ain Issa, northeast Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A displaced child who fled fighting in Raqqa, carries a boy on her back in a refugee camp, in Ain Issa, northeast Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

As the extremists become more surrounded, they have increased their suicide attacks against fighters of the SDF, she added.

"Raqqa has become a booby-trapped city and this shows their (IS's) weakness," said Ms Abdullah, of the Women's Protection Units or YPJ, speaking from northern Syria.

"They are also using civilians as human shields and this is slowing the push as well."

She said the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the Kurdish YPJ women fighters, now controls 45% of Raqqa and since the offensive began, SDF fighters have fully captured eight neighbourhoods.

Mustafa Bali, who heads the SDF media centre, confirmed on Thursday that the group now has half of Raqqa and said the most important areas liberated in the past four days were the Nazlet Shehadeh and Panorama Square neighbourhoods - both on the south-western part of the city.

But he said there are IS counter-attacks, militant sleeper cells and tunnels in the area.

"It was not easy, we have casualties and martyrs," he said, adding that the fighting is ongoing.

Press Association

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