Fierce fighting 20km from ISIS bastion in Syria

Twelve villages have fallen to the rebels in the latest phase of the offensive launched on November 6

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Fierce fighting took place on Wednesday between militants and US-backed Syrian rebels just 20 kilometers from the ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, an AFP reporter saw.

On Saturday, the rebels – a coalition of fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – announced a new phase in a bid to capture Raqqa, and mounted an attack from north and northeast. An AFP reporter at Bir Fawaz, 20 km north of Raqqa, heard machine-gun fire all day Wednesday as SDF attacked ISIS positions in the neighboring village of Maayzila.

The village also came under repeated attack by at least three anti-ISIS coalition warplanes, and heavy smoke could be seen billowing from there. “There has been heavy fighting since the morning. Many IS fighters are holed up inside Maayzila,” the local SDF commander, Ararat Kojer, told AFP.

Twelve villages have fallen to the rebels in the latest phase of the offensive, which was launched on November 6. “Progress is slow because ISIS are putting up a ferocious resistance and placed mines around the approaches to many villages,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is monitoring the conflict, told AFP.

Also readL: Turkish army, Syrian rebels escalate assault on ISIS-held city

The SDF, which has been lobbying for weapons to help them carry out the offensive, has recently received armored SUVs from the United States. A US-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes on ISIS in Syria and neighboring Iraq since 2014. The s offensive is being supported by 500 US troops, including demining teams, military trainers and members of the special forces.

Earlier Wednesday, a spokesman for the coalition predicted that the IS bastion would soon be almost cut off. Although it will not be completely encircled, “it will be very difficult to get into or out of the city,” Colonel John Dorrian said in a video conference from Baghdad.

“What we would expect is that within the next few weeks the city will be nearly completely isolated,” Dorrian said. US-backed Iraqi forces have wrested part of the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS control, although the city’s western districts have yet to be retaken.

The US military said Wednesday that it had killed eleven al-Qaeda operatives, including a veteran leader and suicide bombing pioneer, in a bombing raid in Syria. The Pentagon said Abu Hani al-Masri, the Qaeda veteran, was one of those killed in the precision airstrikes near Idlib carried out on February 3-4.

Al-Masri was an early official in al-Qaeda, overseeing the group’s training camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s as he worked with Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. There “he recruited, indoctrinated, trained and equipped thousands of terrorists who subsequently spread throughout the region and the world,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

They said he also helped found Egyptian Islamic Jihad “he first Sunni group to use suicide bombers in their terror attacks.” “These strikes disrupt al-Qaeda’s ability to plot and direct external attacks targeting the US and our interests worldwide,” said Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis.

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