Kurdish-Arab alliance starts Raqqa operation
ISIS using Raqqa civilans as human shileds according to activists
A US-backed alliance of Kurdish-Arab fighters has started to clear ISIS fighters from the area north of Raqqa, the jihadists' de facto capital, a US official confirmed Tuesday.
"The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) have begun operations to clear the northern countryside, so this is putting pressure on Raqqa," Baghdad-based US military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said.
The US military will conduct air strikes in support of the "several thousand" SDF forces, some of whom have been trained and equipped by the United States.
Warren said the operation began earlier on Tuesday, and SDF forces had met little ISIS resistance across the sparsely populated area.
Approximately 3,000 to 5,000 IS fighters are in Raqqa, Warren said, noting it was not clear when an assault on the key city itself might eventually come.
A separate US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said SDF troops were taking territory on their way to Raqqa, but "they are not attacking Raqa" itself.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, coalition warplanes on Tuesday carried out dozens of strikes north of Raqqa city.
If Raqqa falls, "it's the beginning of the end of their caliphate," Warren predicted.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday said Moscow was ready to coordinate with both the United States and the SDF in the offensive for Raqqa.
The SDF has a total of about 25,000 Kurdish fighters and about 5,000 Arab fighters.
ISIS USING RAQQA CIVILIANS AS HUMAN SHIELDS: ACTIVIST
ISIS fighters are using civilians as human shields in the group's de facto Syria capital Raqqa, a Syrian activist said Tuesday, complicating things for a Kurdish-Arab alliance which has launched an offensive in the area.
"They are using the civilians as a cover. So you'll find them in the same building. In a civilian building, you'll find two or three apartments for ISIS fighters," said Abdel Aziz al-Hamza, a co-founder of the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group.
"They also talk of some schools as places to stay because these schools have basements, something underground, so they are protected from the air strikes. And they are surrounded by civilian buildings."
There have been mounting concerns that the estimated 50,000 civilians believed to still be inside had nowhere to go. "The civilians are besieged, they can't leave their city," said Hamza, who fled Raqqa in January 2014 and has been living in Germany.
"ISIS doesn't let anyone leave the city. At the same time, life has become at least ten times more expensive in the city," he said, using another acronym for ISIS.
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