U.S.-backed force launches assault on Islamic State’s ‘capital’ in Syria

HUKOUMIYA, SYRIA/ BEIRUT, LEBANON (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Tuesday it had launched an operation to capture Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital, piling pressure on the jihadists whose self-declared caliphate is in retreat across Syria and Iraq.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters the battle started on Monday and the fighting would be fierce “because Daesh (Islamic State) will die to defend their so-called capital”.

The assault overlaps with the final stages of the U.S.-backed attack to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. It follows months of advances to the north, east and west of Raqqa by the SDF, which includes Arab and Kurdish militias.

Islamic State captured Raqqa from rebel groups in 2014 and has used it as an operations base to plan attacks in the West. Silo said the assault had begun from the north, east and west of the city, which is bordered to the south by the River Euphrates.

The commander of the Raqqa campaign, Rojda Felat, told Reuters SDF fighters were attacking the al-Mishlab district at the city’s southeastern outskirts, confirming an earlier report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The coalition has a big role in the success of the operations. In addition to warplanes, there are coalition forces working side by side with the SDF,” Silo said by phone from the Hukoumiya farms area, 10 km (6 miles) north of Raqqa, where the SDF later declared the start of the assault.

A Reuters witness at the location could hear the sound of heavy shelling and air strikes in the distance.

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