US-backed Syrian fighters reach gates of ISIS capital of Raqqa
BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed fighters on Tuesday reached the northern entrance of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group, amid intense clashes and airstrikes on Raqqa's northern and eastern edges, opposition activists said.
The latest push by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces brings them to about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the city where a long and deadly battle is expected in the coming weeks, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The latest push comes as airstrikes have intensified in recent days. U.S.-backed fighters have pushed in toward the city, getting closer from all sides. The SDF have captured dozens of towns and villages since November, when the group began an operation entitled Euphrates Wrath, aiming to eventually surround and capture Raqqa.
SDF fighters have surrounded Raqqa from the north, west and east. The extremists still have an exit from the south, even though the U.S.-led coalition destroyed southern two bridges over the Euphrates River.
The Observatory said SDF fighters captured gas and water facilities on the northern edge of Raqqa. The group posted a video showing IS black flags still flying over the northern entrance of Raqqa with a giant IS banner reading "the northern sector thanks you for your visit. The Islamic State."
The activist-operated Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said that the U.S.-led coalition targeted areas of fighting north of the city near a major IS base known as Division 17.
The Sound and Picture Organization, which documents IS violations, said SDF fighters approached the Mashlab neighborhood east of Raqqa. The RBSS said SDF fighters captured a main checkpoint at the entrance of Mashlab but did not enter the area.
The Observatory and RBSS reported that a land mine exploded near a vehicle west of the city killing three people and wounding 10.
Earlier Tuesday, Syria's state media and the Observatory said at least 13 civilians were killed when IS militants shelled government-held neighborhoods in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.
The official state news agency SANA says the shelling hit the neighborhoods of al-Joura and Qussour late on Monday. IS has controlled parts of Deir el-Zour since 2015, leaving more than 90,000 people under siege in the government-held areas.
The Observatory said the shelling took place shortly before sundown as residents were preparing to break their dawn-to-sunset fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The Observatory put the death toll at 14.
Photo: This undated frame grab from video posted online Monday, May 29, 2017, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows people inspecting damage from airstrikes and artillery shelling in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the IS. Airstrikes have intensified over the past days as U.S.-backed fighters have marched toward the city, getting closer to besieging it from all sides. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)