SDF fighters who entered the city from the east and west link up for the first time
US-backed forces tighten the noose around ISIL in Raqqa
The US-backed Syrian fighters advancing on ISIL from the eastern and western parts of the northern city of Raqqa have linked up for the first time since launching their offensive on the extremists' de facto capital, officials said Friday.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have captured half the city since they launched a wide offensive to capture Raqqa on June 6.
The linking up of the eastern and western fronts deprives ISIL of access to the Euphrates River — and effectively leaves the remaining militants in Raqqa and thousands of civilians surrounded.
The top US envoy for the international coalition against ISIL, Brett McGurk, tweeted about the link-up of the two fronts, describing it as a "milestone" that is tightening the noose around ISIL.
Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF's media centre, confirmed that fighters pushing from opposite sides of the city had met up and said the battle against ISIL was continuing "from room to room and from house to house".
Mr Bali said the key difficulty facing advancing SDF fighters was to avoid striking civilians used by ISIL as human shields.
Meanwhile, the UN migration agency said on Friday that more than 600,000 displaced Syrians have returned to their homes this year, citing an increasing trend of returns while warning the situation remains "not sustainable".
International Organisation for Migration said the 602,759 returnees between January and July was on track to surpass the figure of 685,000 for all of 2016.
But spokeswoman Olivia Headon also cautioned about the huge number of displaced Syrians this year — nearly 809,000.
The IOM said that its partner agencies have found that two-thirds of the returnees have gone to the northern Aleppo governorate, where government forces ousted rebels from the city of Aleppo last year.
A third of the returnees said they went back to "protect their assets" while one-quarter cited "improved economic conditions", IOM said.