US-backed Syrian fighters now control almost half of IS city

RAQQA, Syria (AP) — Heavy fighting broke out Thursday as U.S.-backed Syrian fighters captured almost half of the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa. But the push into the city in northern Syria slowed due to stiff resistance and large amounts of explosives planted by the extremists, a spokeswoman for the fighters and monitors said.

The assault on Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led fighting coalition, began June 6, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and U.S. troops advising the local forces.

Since then, the SDF has made steady advances from the eastern and western sides of the city, reaching the walled old quarter.

The fall of Raqqa, the extremist group’s self-proclaimed capital, would be a huge loss for IS, which earlier this month lost the Iraqi city of Mosul. But much tougher fighting still lies ahead.

Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said 45 percent of Raqqa was under the control of the SDF.

In a series of tweets, he said the SDF cleared about 9 square miles of terrain this past week fighting against “stiff, sporadic resistance” from IS militants entrenched in Raqqa.

Commanders on the western Raqqa front line said there were about 800 meters left before SDF forces moving from east and west would connect — tightening the noose on IS.

The battlefield Thursday was busy with hundreds of SDF fighters taking cover inside destroyed buildings less than 500 meters from IS combatants. SDF troops lobbed dozens of mortar shells at the militants, who sent out armed drones above the SDF forces

Meanwhile, senior U.N. humanitarian official Ursula Mueller told the U.N. Security Council by video from Jordan on Thursday that an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people remained in Raqqa.

She said the city was encircled and “there is no way for them to get out.”

Since April 1, over 200,000 people have fled their homes in the area around Raqqa, she said. The figure includes more than 30,000…

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