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US-backed Syrian fighters seize parts of Daesh ‘capital’ Raqqa

Smoke rises from buildings following a reported airstrike on an opposition-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on Wedensday. (AFP)

BEIRUT: US-backed Syrian fighters said they had seized a second district of Raqqa on Sunday and launched a renewed assault on a base north of the city, as they pursued an offensive against Daesh.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that broke into Raqqa after announcing the start of a final assault on the city last week said its fighters “liberated the neighborhood of Al-Romaniya on the western front of Raqqa, after two days of continued clashes.”
It was the first time the SDF was reported to have taken a western district of Daesh-held Raqqa, which its fighters are bearing down on from the east, west and north. The SDF previously seized control of the district of Al-Meshleb in the east.
There was less progress though on the northern front of the battle, where the SDF has struggled to capture the Division 17 military base and an adjacent sugar factory, used by Daesh to defend approaches into the city.
SDF fighters were battling on Sunday to dislodge Daesh from the base, with backing from the US-led coalition bombing Daesh, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Blasts could be heard throughout the night because of the exchange of fire between the two sides,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said Daesh had “heavily fortified” the base in anticipation of a ferocious SDF assault on it.
Originally a Syrian army base, Division 17 was seized by Daesh in 2014 as it took control of swathes of the wider Raqqa province.
After its capture by the militants the same year, Raqqa city emerged as a key hub for Daesh’s operations in Syria, neighboring Iraq and beyond.
The SDF — an Arab-Kurdish alliance formed in 2015 — spent seven months tightening the noose on Raqqa city before finally entering it this week.
After seizing Al-Meshleb on Wednesday, SDF forces were using it as a launching pad for new operations, according to the Observatory.
Al-Meshleb is one of the more built-up residential neighborhoods in the city’s east, while most other districts nearby are made up of markets and small shops.
An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under Daesh rule in Raqqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of Syria.
Thousands have fled in recent months and the UN humanitarian office estimates about 160,000 people remain in the city.
Reports of civilian casualties among those still living inside have swelled in recent weeks.
The Observatory said Sunday that coalition airstrikes the previous day killed 24 civilians inside the city, up from an earlier toll of 13 people.
Abdel Rahman said the increased toll brought civilian deaths in coalition raids to a total of 58 since the battle for Raqqa city was launched on June 6.
To back the assault on Raqqa, the US-led coalition has provided the SDF with air cover, special forces advisers, weapons and equipment.
The alliance first began bombing Daesh positions in Iraq in August 2014 and expanded its operations to Syria the following month.
In addition to heavy raids on Raqqa, the coalition also pounded the Daesh-held town of Al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria on Sunday, according to the Observatory.
“Many of IS’s second-tier leaders fled to Al-Mayadeen when the offensive for Raqqa started months ago,” said Abdel Rahman.
More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with demonstrations against President Bashar Assad.
It has since turned into complex, multi-front conflict pitting militants, opposition groups, regime forces and Kurdish fighters against each other.

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