Syrian Kurds clash with Islamic State militants in battle for Raqqa
Kurdish-led Syrian fighters have clashed with Islamic State militants north of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Members of a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) have been on the offensive in the area since Saturday, aiming to isolate and encircle the city which has been the de facto capital of Islamic State since 2014.
The United States, France and the UK said they would provide air support for the offensive, which was announced at a news conference on Sunday in Ein Issa, north of Raqqa.
But the announcement lacked details on how the SDF, dominated by Kurds, plans to oust the militants from the city, home to nearly 200,000 mostly Sunni Arabs and an estimated 5,000 IS fighters.
The US commander of coalition forces fighting the Islamic State group said the operation to liberate Raqqa aims at eventually cutting off the extremists from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where IS militants are already under attack by US-backed Iraqi forces.
Lieutenant General Townsend said in a statement the Arab element of the SDF is "indigenous to the area" and will help establish "regional support" for SDF operations. His comments appeared to be aimed at soothing concerns that Kurdish forces would take over Raqqa, a predominantly Sunni Arab city.
The fighting in northern Syria is taking place under the cover of air strikes by the US-led coalition that played an instrumental role in the past in battles between SDF and the extremists.
The US Central Command said coalition aircraft conducted 16 air strikes in northern Syria, mostly near the area of Ein Isssa, north of Raqqa, where the fighting appeared to be concentrated.
It said that they engaged 12 IS tactical units and destroyed six fighting positions, five vehicles and two vehicles rigged with explosives. The command said the air strikes were conducted on Sunday.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said heavy fighting was under way on Monday north of Raqqa between IS and SDF fighters. A Kurdish media official in the area, Rania Mohammed, said several farms and villages have been captured since Sunday, without providing further details.
SDF said its fighters destroyed a vehicle rigged with explosives in a farm north of Raqqa.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said IS militants hit an SDF armoured vehicle north of Raqqa with a missile, killing everyone inside.
The Raqqa-based Syrian activist group known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that SDF fighters shelled the village of Tweila'a north of Raqqa forcing its residents to flee.