US-backed Syrian fighters push into ISIS stronghold

AS US-backed Syrian fighters pushed into ISIS-held Manbij, Russian planes pounded Aleppo with Syrian army closing in

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US-backed Syrian fighters pushed further into the ISIS group stronghold of Manbij on Saturday, seizing a key road junction and grain silos overlooking the city, a monitoring group said.

The city lies close to the border with Turkey and is a key staging post on the militants’ supply line to areas under its control in eastern Syria and neighboring Iraq.

The US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces, which have thrust into Manbij after driving across the Euphrates River from the east, have encircled the city and are now closing in with the support of US-led coalition air strikes.

The Syrian Democratic Forces overran the Mills Roundabout in the south of the city on Saturday after capturing nearby grain silos overnight, taking them significantly closer to the city centre, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The grain silos overlook more than half of Manbij. SDF fighters can climb to the top and monitor the city,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Raqa Revolutionaries Brigades - one of the Arab components of the Kurdish-dominated alliance - confirmed that SDF forces had seized the silos and pushed into the city.

Captured by ISIS in 2014, Manbij has served as a key transit point for foreign fighters and funds, as well as a trafficking hub for oil, antiquities and other plundered goods.

Its loss would deprive the militants of vital revenues and mark the greatest victory so far for the Kurdish-led alliance which has already sealed most of the Turkish border.

Some 200 US and other coalition advisers are supporting the offensive launched at the end of last month.

ISIS has thrown large numbers of fighters into the battle, losing 463 since May 31, according to the Observatory. The SDF has lost at least 89.

Russian and Syrian warplanes pounded rebel-held areas of divided second city Aleppo on Saturday as government forces closed in on the rebels’ sole remaining supply line, a monitoring group said.

An AFP correspondent in the rebel-held east of the city said the air strikes lasted throughout the night into the morning.

Aleppo, which was Syria’s commercial and manufacturing hub before civil war broke out in 2011, has been a key battleground ever since rebels seized eastern neighborhoods of the city the following year.

A two-day truce brokered by Moscow and Washington earlier this month in a bid to rescue a wider ceasefire expired without renewal and Russia warned it would press ahead with it air campaign, saying the rebels had failed to deliver on promises to break ranks with al-Qaeda loyalists.

The Russian strikes focused on the Castello Road, the only remaining route out of the rebel-held east of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Russian planes are backing a Syrian regime ground offensive on the northern edges of the city, while Syrian planes bomb the eastern neighborhoods,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

A child was among two people killed in strikes on the rebel-held Al-Maysar neighborhood, the White Helmets civil defense group said.

“In the past two days, my kids and I haven’t been able to sleep all night because of the huge blasts, the likes of which we haven’t heard before,” said 38-year-old shopkeeper Abu Ahmed.

A father of three, Abu Ahmad owns a small convenience store in east Aleppo.

“We haven’t been able to get any products or produce for the shop over the past two days because no one can use the (Castello) road,” he said.

The renewed government offensive around Aleppo comes a day after another key ally, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, pledged to send more fighters to join the “greatest battle” of the war.

Meanwhile, the Observatory said Russian air strikes killed at least 31 civilians and wounded dozens more on Saturday in a militant-held town in eastern Syria, a monitor said.

The monitor said the raids hit the town of Al-Quriyah, controlled by ISIS in Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.

Observatory head Abdel Rahman said there were 16 other people killed but it was not immediately clear whether they were civilians or ISIS fighters.

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