The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had broken into the Islamic State group’s Syrian bastion of Raqqa yesterday, shortly after declaring a new phase in their fight for the city.
“Our forces entered the city of Raqqa from the eastern district of al-Meshleb,” SDF commander Rojda Felat said.
She said fierce clashes were also raging on the northern outskirts of the city.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the SDF had seized a number of buildings in al-Meshleb.
In a telephone interview from Syria, SDF spokesman Talal Silo said the operation started on Monday and the fighting would be “fierce because DAESH [Islamic State] will die to defend their so-called capital.”
The Islamic State group captured the city from rebel groups in 2014 and has used it as an operations base to plan attacks in the West.
The assault on Raqqa will pile more pressure on Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate,” with the group facing defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul and being forced into retreat across much of Syria.
“The coalition has a big role in the success of the operations. In addition to warplanes, there are coalition forces working side by side with the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Silo said.
The observatory earlier said the SDF attacked the eastern edge of Raqqa and a military base on the northern outskirts of the city.
“It started today at dawn,” observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said. “They have reached the city, but they have not entered any of its buildings.”
The attack on the al-Mashlab district and on the Division 17 base around 1 km to the north of the city center followed heavy overnight air strikes, the observatory said.
The SDF has been working to encircle Raqqa since November last year in an offensive backed by the US-led coalition that is also fighting Islamic State in Iraq, where the group is on the brink of defeat in the city of Mosul.
The US-led coalition has said 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to be holed up in Raqqa city, where they have erected defenses against the anticipated assault.
The city is about 90km from the border with Turkey.
The US yesterday said that it had started distributing arms to the YPG to help take Raqqa, part of a plan that has angered Turkey, which is worried by growing Kurdish influence in northern Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim yesterday said that Ankara would retaliate immediately if the operation to capture Raqqa presents a threat to Turkey.
Additional reporting by AFP
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