US-backed fighters yesterday battled to dislodge Muslim extremists from a key military base north of Raqqa city, the heart of the Islamic State group’s (IS) Syrian territory, a monitor said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have entered IS’s bastion of Raqqa from the east and west, but have struggled to capture the Division 17 military base on the northern outskirts of the city.
The SDF launched a renewed attack on Division 17 overnight 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.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said IS had “heavily fortified” the base in anticipation of a ferocious SDF assault on it.
Originally a Syrian army base, Division 17 was seized by IS in 2014 as it took control of swathes of the wider Raqqa Province.
The SDF — an Arab-Kurdish alliance formed in 2015 — spent seven months tightening the noose on Raqqa city before before finally entering it last week. It has since captured the district of al-Meshleb in the city’s east, as well as parts of two western neighborhoods.
“SDF fighters are still combing through al-Meshleb to use it as a base for new operations towards the north and south,” Abdel Rahman said.
Al-Meshleb is one of the more built-up residential neighborhoods in the east of the city, while most other districts nearby 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.
The observatory yesterday said that coalition air strikes the previous day killed 24 civilians inside the city, up from an earlier toll of 13 people.
In related news, Russia on Saturday said that it had told the US it was unacceptable for Washington to strike pro-government forces in Syria after the US military carried out an air strike on pro-Assad militia last month.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov relayed the message to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a telephone call on Saturday initiated by the US side, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
US officials said last month that the US military carried out the air strike against militia supported by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that it said posed a threat to US forces and US-backed Syrian fighters in the south.
Russia said at the time that the US action would hamper efforts to find a political solution.
“Lavrov expressed his categorical disagreement with the US strikes on pro-government forces and called on him to take concrete measures to prevent similar incidents in future,” the ministry said.
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