Home English News Heavy clashes as Syrian Kurds launch move on Islamic State “capital”

Heavy clashes as Syrian Kurds launch move on Islamic State “capital”

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Cairo – Heavy clashes were taking place on Sunday north of al-Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, a monitoring group said, after Kurdish-led forces announced the start of a long-awaited campaign to capture the city.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured several frontline villages and farms about 45 kilometres north of al-Raqqa, while warplanes buzzed the area and targeted jihadist positions, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

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Islamic State, via its Amaq Agency media outlet, claimed to have killed 14 Kurdish fighters in a suicide car bomb attack on a checkpoint in the area.

The Kurds said they had destroyed two car bombs, but a source close to the SDF, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that an unspecified number of SDF fighters had been killed in the attack.

Hours earlier, SDF commanders announced the move on al-Raqqa – which comes as Iraqi forces push into the organization’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul – and said it was being conducted in coordination with the US-led air coalition against Islamic State.

Around 80 per cent of those participating in the so-called Euphrates Anger operation are civilians from al-Raqqa, the commanders said. The city in north-eastern Syria has been under Islamic State control since 2014.

Mosul and al-Raqqa are the only major urban centres Islamic State fully controls.

In Washington, US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter welcomed the announcement that the operation had begun.

“The effort to isolate, and ultimately liberate, Raqqa marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan,” Carter said in a statement issued by the Pentagon.

As in Mosul, he said, the fight will not be easy, but it is necessary to end the “fiction” of Islamic State’s caliphate and disrupt the group’s ability to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies and partners.

The Kurdish lead in the battle for mainly Arab al-Raqqa may be a flashpoint both for local residents and for neighbouring Turkey, a fierce opponent of the Syrian Kurds which itself hopes to play a role in capturing the north-eastern city.

“We confirm … that the Euphrates Anger operation will move firmly until it achieves its aim of isolating and then bringing down the capital of global terrorism,” an SDF spokeswoman said.

“We call on our steadfast people [in al-Raqqa] to steer clear of the enemy’s positions that will be the target of fire from the liberation forces and alliance,” spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, clad in combat fatigues, said at a press conference in Ein Issa near the front lines.

The SDF includes Arabs and other ethnic groups, but it is effectively led by the powerful Kurdish People’s Protection Units, who have seized swathes of northern Syria from Islamic State since defeating the extremist militants in the border town of Kobane early last year.

The SDF previously announced a campaign to capture the countryside north of al-Raqqa in May, but that appeared to have been a feint.

After a couple of days of minor clashes, the Kurdish-led forces instead launched a major assault on the strategic town of Minbij, lying between al-Raqqa and the Turkish border, which they captured in August.

That prompted an intervention by Turkey, which moved allied Syrian rebels into northern Syria to capture the last Islamic State-held stretch of the border.

Ankara said that its operations were aimed at both Islamic State and the Kurds, whom it denounces as terrorists because of their links with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his forces will be the ones to move on al-Raqqa.

Carter said Friday that Washington was still talking to Ankara about “the final seizure of Raqqa … and a possible role for Turkey in that further down the road.”

– dpa