Thu, Mar 30, 2017 - Page 7 News List

IS counterattacks to delay advance on Syria’s Raqqa

AFP, TABQA DAM, Syria

Members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces inspect the Tabqa Dam near Raqqa, Syria, on Monday.

Photo: AFP

Clashes raged around a key northern Syrian town on Tuesday after the Islamic State (IS) group launched a counterattack to fend off a US-backed advance near the extremists’ stronghold, Raqqa.

Backed by air power from an international coalition bombing the Islamic State, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been laying the groundwork for an assault on the heart of the extremists’ so-called “caliphate.”

A key part of the campaign is the battle for the Islamic State-held town of Tabqa on the Euphrates River, as well as the adjacent dam and military airport.

The SDF seized the Tabqa airbase late on Sunday and began moving north toward the town itself, but Islamic State fighters began pushing back on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The fighting is a result of IS launching a counteroffensive to exhaust the Syrian Democratic Forces around the Tabqa military airport,” observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The SDF was working to “consolidate its positions” near the airport ahead of a final push for the town, he said.

The Islamic State launched the attack with a car bomb targeting SDF forces stationed near the airport, the alliance’s media arm said.

Fierce clashes broke out, but the SDF held back the attack, and managed to seize some ammunition and rocket stores from the militants, pictures published by the SDF showed.

SDF fighters were also bearing down on the Tabqa Dam after capturing its northern entrance on Friday last week from Islamic State fighters.

The fight around the structure has been backed by forces from the US-led coalition, with US-made armored vehicles bearing the markings of the US Marine Corps seen moving along a nearby road.

A correspondent at the dam on Tuesday said it was generally quiet around the dam itself, despite the occasional Islamic State-fired mortar that landed in SDF-controlled parts of the riverbank.

Airplanes could be heard above as SDF forces patrolled the northern entrance of the structure.

On Tuesday, coalition forces could be seen standing near military vehicles less than 2km from the dam, their mortar rounds casually stacked nearby.

After a brief pause in fighting on Monday to allow technicians to enter the dam complex, SDF fighters resumed their operations around the structure, spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said.

“IS amassed its fighters and attacked our forces in the area, which forced us to respond and resume the operations to liberate the dam,” she said.

Earlier this year, the UN raised concern about the prospect of damage to the dam in fighting, warning that water levels — which put pressure on the structure — were already high.

On Tuesday, technicians accompanied by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent could be seen examining the dam to assess whether water levels had risen in recent days.

“The explosions and the clashes are threatening the dam, and we ask for all sides to distance themselves from it,” said Ismail Jassem, an engineer from the SDF-controlled Tishrin Dam in neighboring Aleppo Governorate.

“The water levels are acceptable now. We came to open up one of the gates to relieve the pressure,” he told reporters.

The Islamic State has accused the US-led coalition of bringing the dam to near-collapse with its airstrikes, and on Tuesday it said a US air raid killed top technicians at the dam.

“An American strike yesterday targeted the technical team at the Euphrates Dam, which killed the dam director, a technician and an electrical engineer,” the group told the Amaq news agency, which is linked to the militant organization.

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