US-backed Syria force says IS fightback slowing Raqa battle

AIN ISSA, Syria: US-backed fighters battling to capture Syria’s Raqa are being slowed by fierce resistance from the IS group which has heavily mined the city, a militia spokeswoman has said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by an international coalition battling IS, entered Raqa city two months ago.
SDF fighters have now captured more than half of the one-time militant bastion, Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Wrath of the Euphrates operation to capture the city, said on Tuesday.
But the force’s progress has been hindered by IS which is fighting hard to hang on to the de facto Syrian capital of its self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
“Our forces are continuing to advance inside Raqa, but slowly,” Sheikh Ahmed said.
She said SDF forces had seized nine districts in the city’s west and east, while IS was putting up a fierce defence of the seven remaining neighbourhoods.
“After being besieged from four sides, Daesh has no option but to surrender or die,” she said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. “That is what has made its reaction fiercer.”
She said the militants had laid explosives “in every centimetre” of the city, slowing the SDF’s progress.
“Our goal is not simply to liberate territory geographically, but to liberate the civilians in the city,” she said.
The fight for Raqa has prompted tens of thousands of civilians to flee, with many wounded by crossfire or IS-planted explosive devices during their escape.
The United Nations has estimated between 20,000 and 50,000 people remain in the city, though others have given lower estimates.
Sheikh Ahmed said SDF forces were also facing IS snipers and weaponised drones, tactics the militant group has employed to defend its territories.
She said the militants had even staged commando-style attacks within territory recently captured by the SDF.
“Sometimes they infiltrate from behind (the front lines) through tunnels,” she said.
But she said the campaign was progressing “with steady steps, no matter how slow”.
The SDF is backed by the US-led coalition battling IS in Iraq and Syria, which has supplied weapons, air cover and a limited number of troops.
Sheikh Ahmed praised that support, which she said was growing as the SDF pushed deeper inside Raqa.
The US envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, said last week that SDF fighters hold 45 per cent of Raqa, and estimated about 2,000 IS militants remained in the city.
Coalition raids kill 29 civilians: US-led coalition raids on Raqa in northern Syria have killed 29 civilians over the past 24 hours as American-backed forces battle the IS group, a monitor said on Tuesday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine women and 14 children had been killed in coalition air raids on Raqa city since Monday evening.
It said 14 of the dead were members of one family. The toll could rise because of the number of critically wounded, it added.
The United States has admitted that its strikes caused the deaths of 624 civilians since 2014. Rights organisations say the number is far higher.
United Nations war crimes investigators in June expressed alarm at the rise in civilian deaths in the fight for Raqa. — AFP

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