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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Raqqa's Great Mosque fully retaken, says anti-ISIL coalition

The mosque, the oldest in the city, had been under ISIL control since 2014 when the extremists captured Raqqa

Fighters with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance move to the front line of the battle with ISIL in Raqqa on July 22, 2017. Hussein Malla / AP
Fighters with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance move to the front line of the battle with ISIL in Raqqa on July 22, 2017. Hussein Malla / AP

The US-led coalition battling ISIL said on Monday that the Great Mosque in Raqqa had been successfully cleared by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, as the battle to retake the city from ISIL continues.

It came as Syrian government forces and their allies appeared to be on the verge of breaking a nearly three-year siege imposed by ISIL on the eastern city of Deir Ezzour.

The Great Mosque in Raqqa, the oldest in the city, had been under ISIL control since 2014 when the extremists captured Raqqa. The US-led coalition, which provides equipment, training and air support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, said the mosque had been fully cleared of ISIL fighters on Saturday last week.

"The liberation of this historic landmark is a testimony to the dedication and courage of the SDF as they fight to defeat ISIS in Raqqa," said coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon.

"The SDF have made consistent incremental gains in the urban terrain of the city, fighting block by block, and applying increasing pressure on ISIS each day while evacuating civilians along the way."

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Read more:

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Liberation of Raqqa's Old City remains in doubt

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The SDF, backed by the US-led coalition, launched its offensive to recapture Raqqa on June 6, and have since taken more than half the city.

The coalition said on Monday that the SDF had gone to great lengths to limit damage to infrastructure in its battle to retake Raqqa, including the centuries-old mosque.

Meanwhile, opposition activists and state media said on Monday that Syrian government forces and their allies were on the verge of ISIL's siege on Deir Ezzour, Associated Press reported.

Breaking the siege would mark another victory for president Bashar Al Assad, whose forces have been advancing on several fronts against ISIL and other insurgent groups over the past year.

Syrian troops and allied militiamen have for months been advancing towards Deir Ezzour, the capital of the province of the same name. Government forces are besieged in a handful of neighbourhoods as well as a nearby airport.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that the advancing forces were just a few hundred metres from a besieged, government-held air base known as Brigade 137. If they reach the base, they will be able to lift the siege.

State television, meanwhile, reported that government forces were only three kilometres away from breaking the siege. State news agency Sana reported the "collapse" of ISIL defences in the area.

"The morale is very high," Deir Ezzour's governor, Mohammed Ibrahim Al Samra, told state television, speaking from inside the besieged area.

"Assad's forces are few kilometres from breaking the siege," said opposition activist Omar Abu Laila, who currently lives in Europe but is from Deir Ezzour. He is with DeirEzzor 24, an activist group that has reporters throughout the eastern province.

Al Manar TV, the media arm of Hizbollah, aired footage of people celebrating in the streets of besieged parts of the city. Some 70,000 people live in government-held areas, which have been relying on air drops for food and basic goods.

Hizbollah is fighting alongside Mr Al Assad's forces, while Russia is providing crucial air support. The Russian defence ministry said its aircraft had carried out 80 airstrikes, destroying two tanks and killing and wounding 70 people in the Deir Ezzour area.

Thousands of people have been fleeing Deir Ezzour province because of the offensive, many of them heading toward the northeastern province of Hassakeh. Last week, dozens of people were killed or wounded by mines laid by the extremists.

ISIL has suffered a series of major setbacks in both Syria and Iraq in recent months. The group is now forcibly conscripting all men between the ages of 20 and 30 to replace lost fighters.

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