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Syrian army crosses into Raqqa province

07 June 2017

"Overnight, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced the beginning of operations to liberate Raqqa from ISIS".

The offensive on Raqqa comes at a time when USA -backed Iraqi government forces say they are close to fully liberating Mosul, the final significant IS stronghold in Iraq. It said SDF fighters captured several buildings in Mashlab.

Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told reporters that operations have begun in coordination with the USA -led coalition. Retaking the key cities of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq will be major defeats for ISIS and its self-declared caliphate, though the coalition warned "there will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead".

The SDF is a multi-ethnic coalition of forces consisting of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs, Christians, tribal brigades, men and women.

With its "competent, unitary command" and "generally reliable hostility to jihadists", the YPG established itself as the ground force of choice for the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria, Heller said.

Lt Gen Steve Townsend, the top USA commander in Iraq, said the twin offensives against Mosul and Raqqa are harming Islamic State's prestige and ability to recruit new loyalists.

Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, the top USA commander in Iraq, says the assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces will deliver a decisive blow to the idea of IS "as a physical caliphate".

The Observatory said 21 people were killed in the Monday night airstrikes. Thousands have fled in recent months to other parts of the province or to makeshift camps in territory newly captured by the SDF.

The offensive, dubbed "Anger of the Euphrates", began with the storming of buildings in the eastern neighborhood of Mishlab by SDF troops fighting alongside US special operations forces, according to a monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Coalition warplanes and artillery began strikes Monday afternoon, and continued through Tuesday afternoon.

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The advance was backed by heavy air strikes by the US-led coalition, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The U.S. -led coalition says it tries to avoid civilian casualties in its bombing runs in Syria and Iraq and investigates any allegations. United Nations humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke told Reuters that, for its planning purposes, the United Nations estimates there are approximately 160,000 people left in the city, but said this was not a formal estimate.

The coalition struck similarly described forces in the area last month.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, praised Mr. Trump for freeing US commanders to carry the fight to the Islamic State but expressed concern Tuesday on Fox News that the heavily Kurdish assault force will have trouble holding the heavily Arab city if and when the Islamic State is defeated.

"They have had three years to establish their defenses there. From the historical resistance of Kobanê to the liberation of Girê Spî, Hawl and Shaddadi, to the villages of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, and to the dams in these regions, many historic steps have been taken for the liberation of the people in these regions from the terrorists and the fulfillment of their vital needs within existing resources", the SDF said in a statement. Together with the ongoing fight for Mosul in Iraq, seizing control of the city is seen as a crucial goal in the fight against ISIS.

The militants' "weapon of choice" is the armored auto bomb, driven by a suicide attacker at defensive positions or concentrations of forces, Dillon said. An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under IS rule in Raqqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of the country. It was not clear how many pro-government troops had been killed.

The top commander of the worldwide coalition, Lieutenant General Steve Townsend, said the coalition and its partners were "steadily dismantling the physical caliphate" of IS.

The same route leading out of the city's southern districts has been used by IS fighters, it said.