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Saturday 29 April 2017

Syrian Kurdish force confident of taking IS 'capital' Raqqa

A Turkish army soldier holds his fighting position during exercises, at a military outpost near the town of Kilis, south-eastern Turkey, at the border with conflict-stricken Syria (AP)
A Turkish army soldier holds his fighting position during exercises, at a military outpost near the town of Kilis, south-eastern Turkey, at the border with conflict-stricken Syria (AP)

The main Syrian Kurdish force fighting Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria said it has enough fighters to take the extremists' de facto capital of Raqqa - with US help.

The claims by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reflect a veiled warning to Ankara and also to rival, Turkish-backed opposition forces which are making headway towards the northern city.

The comments by SDF spokeswoman Cihan Sheikh Ehmed came as US military leaders signalled American troops could play a bigger role on the ground in the battle to capture Raqqa.

Gen Joseph Votel, the top US commander in the Middle East, suggested that there will be a larger and longer American military presence in Syria to accelerate the fight against IS and quell friction within the complicated mix of warring factions there.

The SDF spokeswoman said their numbers are increasing with more residents of newly-liberated areas from IS joining the ethnically-mixed force, which has been the most effective group on the ground in Syria in the battle against the extremists.

Ms Sheikh Ehmed said: "We have enough forces to liberate Raqqa with the help of the coalition," adding that their troops received intelligence that IS is moving some of its leaders outside the city and are digging tunnels in preparation for intense street battles.

Her remarks are likely to anger Turkey, which has insisted that Syrian opposition fighters backed by Ankara should lead the offensive on Raqqa rather than the SDF, which is dominated by the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey has declared the YPG a terrorist organisation and considers it to be linked to its own home-grown Kurdish insurgency.

As the SDF advances in areas close to Raqqa, US-led coalition aircraft pounded areas in the city and its outskirts, according to the US central command and Syrian opposition activists.

The US command said 13 strikes had engaged a number of targets.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, reported air strikes on Raqqa as well as its outskirts.

Meanwhile, Turkey's military said Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces have killed - or "neutralised"- 71 Syrian Kurdish fighters in northern Syria this week.

The operations are part of Turkey's months-long incursion into its war-torn neighbour in a push against IS but also in an effort to restrict the US-backed SDF.

Since the Turkish operation started in August, the joint Turkish and Syrian opposition forces have killed as many as 2,647 IS militants and 425 Syrian Kurdish fighters in Syria, said a Turkish military statement.

It added that more than 772 square miles in northern Syria are now under control of the Turkish-backed forces.

Syria criticised Turkey over its intervention in the country and support for opposition forces trying to remove president Bashar Assad from power, saying it has killed thousands, and called on the UN Security Council to press Ankara to withdraw its troops.

The statement came a day after Syria's state media reported that Turkish troops had shelled Syrian army positions north of the country, killing and wounding several troops.

SDF fighters have been on the offensive in the Raqqa area since November and have closed major supply roads used by IS. They have captured large areas from IS since then under the cover of air strikes of the US-led coalition.

Late last month, Pentagon leaders sent a new plan on how to defeat IS to the White House, including a variety of options for the ongoing fight in Iraq and Syria.

The White House has not yet approved the plans, but the recent deployments into Syria suggest that President Donald Trump may be leaning toward giving the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the IS fight.

Russia is not likely to stay out of the push on Raqqa, either. Nor are Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, which Moscow backs.

The Russian military said its jets have killed more than 600 militants in just one week while backing the Syrian army's offensive against IS.

Col Gen Sergei Rudskoi said Russian aircraft have carried out 452 air strikes in support of the Syrian government forces.

In addition, Col Gen Rudskoi stated that Syrian government forces have recaptured 92 towns and villages across a territory of 185 square miles from IS in the past week.

Press Association

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