US-backed Syria force ousts IS from half of Raqa

Beirut (AFP) – A US-backed alliance has ousted Islamic State group jihadists from half of their Syrian bastion Raqa, a monitor said Wednesday, as the escalating fighting drove up the civilian death toll.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have been fighting for several months to capture the northern city, which has become infamous as the Syrian heart of IS’s so-called “caliphate.”

The SDF “are now in control of 50 percent of Raqa city despite the fierce resistance mounted by IS”, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.

The SDF assault has been backed by air strikes, special forces advisers, equipment and weapons from the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

On Wednesday, a barrage of US-led air strikes across the city left at least 29 civilians dead, the British-based Observatory said.

“At least eight children are among the dead,” Abdel Rahman said.

The SDF’s Arab and Kurdish fighters first entered Raqa on June 6, seven months after launching their flagship offensive for the city — called Operation Wrath of the Euphrates.

They have since steadily advanced in a pincer-like motion, closing in on the city centre.

But IS has fought back using a slew of car bombs, suicide attacks, weaponised drones and with improvised explosive devices scattered across the city.

– Tightening noose –

The spokeswoman for the SDF’s Raqa operation told AFP that just under half the city was under SDF control.

“Forty-five percent of Raqa has been liberated. Our forces are advancing on all sides,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said late Wednesday.

“The tighter the noose grows around Daesh (IS), the more strongly it reacts and the tougher it fights,” Ahmed said.

IS first seized Raqa in early 2014, and the city has since become synonymous with the group’s most gruesome atrocities.

The jihadists carried out public beheadings there and is also thought to have used Raqa as a hub for planning attacks overseas.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the escalating…

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