US-backed Syrian fighters seized a second district of Raqqa yesterday and launched a renewed assault on a base north of the city, as they pursued an offensive against the Islamic State group.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) broke into Raqqa earlier this week after announcing the start of a final assault on the IS-held city.
Yesterday, the Arab-Kurdish alliance said its fighters had “liberated the neighbourhood 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 Raqqa, after seizing control of the Al Meshleb district in the east.
The western approach to the city was littered with mangled motorcycles and unexploded mortar rounds fired by IS, AFP’s correspondent there said.
Inside the city, SDF commanders took up positions on the rooftops of modest one-storey homes that were eerily empty of civilians.
“Daesh is shooting anyone who sticks their head out,” one SDF fighter said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Artillery, sniper fire and air strikes rang out throughout yesterday, and pillars of thick black smoke snaked up from the city skyline.
Bombardment had taken chunks out of the white dome of a neighbourhood mosque, and the notorious black IS flag hung limply from a roof.
After its capture by IS in 2014, Raqqa city emerged as a key hub for IS’ operations in Syria, neighbouring Iraq, and beyond.
The SDF — an Arab-Kurdish alliance formed in 2015 — spent seven months tightening the noose on Raqqa city from the north, east, and west.
While it has advanced steadily against IS inside east and west Raqqa, it has made less progress on the northern front, where militants are using a military base and adjacent sugar factory to defend the approach into the city.
SDF fighters were battling yesterday to dislodge the militants from the Division 17 base, with backing from the US-led coalition bombing IS, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Blasts could be heard throughout the night because of the exchange of fire between the two sides,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.
Originally a Syrian army base, Division 17 was seized by IS in 2014 when it took control of swathes of the wider Raqqa province. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said IS had “heavily fortified” the base in anticipation of a ferocious SDF assault.
In the city’s east, SDF fighters were using the Al Meshleb neighbourhood yesterday as a launching pad for new operations against IS. The alliance seized Al Meshleb on Wednesday, a day after announcing its final push for Raqqa city itself.
The district is one of the more built-up residential neighbourhoods in the city’s east, and the surrounding areas are made up of markets and small shops.
An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under IS 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.
They have no electricity and were facing severe water shortages, according to the activist collective known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
“Most of the bakeries are closed because of the lack of flour,” the group wrote yesterday.
The Observatory said that coalition air strikes on Saturday killed 24 civilians inside Raqqa, up from an earlier toll of 13.
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, the US-led coalition has provided the SDF with air cover, special forces advisers, weapons and other equipment.
The alliance first began bombing IS 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 IS-held town of Al Mayadeen in eastern Syria yesterday, the Observatory said.
“Many of IS’ 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 al-Assad.
It has since turned into a complex, multi-front conflict pitting militants, rebel groups, government forces and Kurdish fighters against each other.
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