US-backed rebels move into Raqqa
A US-backed Syrian opposition force said yesterday it had captured a north-western neighbourhood of the Isil group's de-facto capital of Raqqa, the second district to fall into their hands in days after the rebels launched a wide offensive to gain control of the extremists' final stronghold.
US military officials said they had no information to confirm or deny a report Isil 'caliph' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed in an air strike in the city.
Independent experts were expressing scepticism about the fast-spreading claims of the terrorist leader's death, which reportedly was broadcast late on Saturday on Syrian state television.
However, the BBC's monitoring service said yesterday it had detected no such report on either state television or Syria's state news agency, Sana.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said its fighters captured the neighbourhood of Romaniah after two days of fighting that left 12 Isil gunmen dead, including a commander known as Abu Khattab al-Tunsi.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters now controlled Romaniah and the eastern neighbourhood of Mashlab. The fighters have also entered Raqqa's western neighbourhood of Sabahiya and the industrial district in the east.
Raqqa was among the first cities captured by Isil back in January 2014 and has been the home of some of the group's most prominent leaders.
The battle for the city is expected to be extended and bloody, and could mark a major turning point in the war against the extremists.
Isil has been fortifying its positions in Raqqa for months, setting up barriers and hanging sheets of cloth over main streets to provide cover from warplanes. A belt of land mines and militant checkpoints circle the city.
SDF fighters began their offensive on Raqqa on June 6 under the cover of air strikes by the US-led coalition.
The Isil-linked Aamaq news agency said the city was subjected to intense air strikes and shelling by the SDF and the US-led coalition, releasing a video that showed wide destruction in one of the neighbourhoods.
The video also showed severely wounded men and children being rushed to hospitals.