Abu Ilaj (Syria) (AFP) – Outside the newly conquered village of Abu Ilaj on the road to Raqa in Syria, anti-jihadist fighters dig trenches with bulldozers to prevent a surprise Islamic State group attack.
“In every area that we advance we are digging trenches with tractors and bulldozers to protect the front line, to prevent the jihadists from getting in and to stop car bombs,” one fighter says.
On Sunday, the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance announced it had launched an offensive against the de facto IS capital in northeast Syria, Raqa.
In neighbouring Iraq, the jihadists’ bastion of Mosul is also under sustained attack.
“Each time we liberate a village or hamlet, we take preventative measures such as digging ditches around sectors we’ve taken,” SDF spokesman Talal Sello tells AFP.
“We know very well the terrorist methods of Daesh, and that’s why it is vital to fortify positions as soon as territory is liberated,” he adds, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
This desolate tiny desert village bears the scars of recent heavy fighting. Its dusty streets are deserted and many houses are now rubble to be negotiated by the fighters as they move forward.
All-terrain vehicles speed through the area bearing fresh Kurdish fighters bound for the front line, their heads wrapped in multi-coloured scarves.
They pass other fighters, tired and dusty from the fight and sitting on the ground, their weapons propped up against a wall as they grab what time they can before rejoining the battle.
“Yesterday (Sunday) we cleaned out the area. In this village Daesh detonated several cars to slow our advance and others were destroyed by aircraft,” says Abu Yazan, head of the Tal Abyad revolutionary brigade, standing atop the rubble of a house.
“Inshallah, God willing, in a few days we will cut the supply route of those terrorists entrenched in Raqa,” adds the 38-year-old commander with a black beard and wearing a black and white chequered keffiyeh.
Warplanes from the US-led coalition fighting IS can be heard overhead all the time.
An AFP journalist witnessed one aircraft launch a strike against a jihadist position and saw grey plumes of smoke billow skywards.
The sound of war on the battlefield is incessant.
“The front we are in charge of extends for 23 kilometres (14 miles) between Ain Issa and Tal Samaan,” a town 26 kilometres north of Raqa, says fighter Fadel Abu Rim, 40.
“There are a few pockets of Daesh fighters behind us, but the jihadists aren’t able to flee because we have had their positions locked up tight since the operation began,” he adds.