x

Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

US-backed forces in Syria enter Raqqa's Old City

Bypassing booby traps and snipers, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have advanced into the most heavily fortified sector of the city.

BEIRUT // American-backed Syrian forces have breached the wall around Raqqa's Old City, marking a major advance in the long battle to drive ISIL militants out of their self-declared capital.

The US Central Command (Centcom) said the coalition struck two "small portions" of the Rafiqah Wall, allowing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)"to advance into the most heavily fortified portion" of the city, bypassing booby traps and snipers. It said the strikes left most of the 2,500-metre wall intact. The breaching of the wall was described as the most important development to date in the battle for Raqqa, the most important of ISIL's last remaining strongholds.

The head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said three SDF units advanced toward the wall under air cover, breaking through the ISIL defenses, and that heavy clashes were underway.

Footage provided by the SDF showed their fighters roaming Qasr Al Banat, a historic quarter inside Raqqa's Old City. Another unit entered through the so-called Baghdad Gate, opening up a second front inside the Old City.

The US military said ISIL fighters were using the historic wall as a fighting position, and had planted explosives at several openings.Coalition forces were making every effort to protect civilians and preserve the historic sites.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces launched a multi-pronged assault on Raqqa last month after securing the surrounding countryside. On Sunday, the U.S.-backed fighters crossed the Euphrates River on the southern edge of the city, completing its encirclement.

United Nations officials say 50,000 to 100,000 civilians remain in the city amid "dire" conditions. Those who try to escape risk being attacked or killed by ISIL militants or forcibly recruited as human shields.

The US-led coalition is providing close air support to the SDF, which has already driven the extremists from much of northern and eastern Syria.

Several ISIL leaders were once based in Raqqa, where the group plotted attacks in Europe, and the loss of the northern Syrian city would be a major blow. The militants are also on the verge of losing their last foothold in Mosul in northern Iraq, where they declared an Islamic "caliphate" three years ago.

As ISIL loses ground, tensions are rising among the array of forces battling the militants.

Turkey shelled several villages in Syria overnight on Tuesday, killing a woman and two children, according to Kurdish officials and Syrian activists. The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said the three were killed, and several others wounded, near Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave near the border with Turkey.

Turkey's private Dogan news agency said Turkish artillery units responded after the border region came under fire late Monday.

The SDF is dominated by the People's Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey views as an extension of the PKK, the insurgent group which has waged war with the Turkish government in the south-east of the country for years.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said Turkey may launch a cross-border operation into Afrin if it constitutes a "constant security threat."