BEIRUT, May 27, (Agencies): Warplanes from the US-led coalition have pounded the Islamic State group with at least 150 strikes to bolster a major offensive on the jihadists’ Syrian stronghold of Raqa, a monitor said Friday. The US is backing twin assaults against IS — one in Raqa province and another which aims to retake the Iraqi city of Falluja across the border. A Kurdish-Arab alliance is being supported by coalition air raids as well as US forces on the ground in its push for territory north of Raqa city — IS’s de facto Syrian capital. Turkey on Friday said it was “unacceptable” that US troops had been seen near Raqa wearing insignia of Kurdish militia who belong to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and who Ankara regards as a terror group.
The coalition has been providing air support to the SDF with 150 strikes on IS positions since the assault began Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britishbased monitor. “There has been a serious intensification of air strikes,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said. SDF forces have pushed forward from Ain Issa, less than 60 kms (40 miles) north of Raqa city, into the surrounding farmland and small villages.
The fighting and bombardment has left 31 IS fighters dead so far, Abdel Rahman said. The number of SDF casualties was unclear. Near the front line, an AFP photographer on Wednesday saw US soldiers supporting SDF forces, who say they have advanced seven kilometres from Ain Issa. The twin offensives come as world powers try to salvage a shaky ceasefire between the regime and non-jihadist rebels agreed in February to boost efforts to end a conflict that has killed more than 280,000 people. The estimated 300,000 people still living in Raqa city are becoming increasingly desperate to flee. According to anti-IS activist group Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), residents were paying smugglers $400 (350 euros) each to try to escape.
“There is nearly no one walking in the streets,” said RBSS activist Hamoud al- Musa. “People are afraid of a brutal onslaught from the warplanes, whether coalition, Russian, or even regime,” he told AFP. IS had set up a few new checkpoints in Raqa city and was “amassing its forces on the front lines” further north, he said. For the second time this week, coalition warplanes on Friday morning dropped leaflets encouraging residents to flee Raqa. IS, which has tightened restrictions on movement, has been accused of using residents as human shields. Abdel Rahman said a handful of families had fled the city to Idlib province, controlled by a rebel alliance including IS’s jihadist rival, Al-Nusra Front. In Aleppo city, at least four civilians including a child were killed in barrel bomb attacks on an opposition-controlled eastern district, according to the civil defence. Air strikes also killed 11 people in a bakery in the town of Hreitan and four in Kfar Hamra in the same province, rescue workers said.
Rebel rocket fire hit Aleppo’s regimeheld district of Midan, killing an elderly woman and wounding nine others, state media said. In Iraq, pro-government forces have advanced towards bridges leading to IS-held Falluja, said Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, head of the Falluja Liberation Operations Command. IS fighters were using “car bomb and suicide (bombers) and sniper detachments” to resist the advance. About 50,000 civilians are estimated to be trapped inside the city, and only 800 had been able to escape, according to the UN’s refugee agency. Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the UN had received reports that people including women and children had been killed trying to flee.
More than 4,200 Iraqis from Mosul fled to Syria in May, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday, adding it is gearing up for up to 50,000 people to leave the Islamic State-held city and cross the border. Driving the exodus appear to be reports that IS militants have stepped up executions of men and boys in Falluja since Iraqi government forces launched an offensive to re-take the city, where people are also dying of starvation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
The Iraqi army launched an offensive on Monday to dislodge the ultra-hardline Sunni militants from Falluja, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad. Falluja was the first Iraqi city to fall under Islamic State control, in January 2014, and has been under a tight siege for about six months. Iraqi forces, with help from a US-led coalition, are expected to push later this year to retake Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq.
Militants of the Islamic State group on Friday seized a string of villages from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border in rapid advances that forced the evacuation of a hospital and trapped tens of thousands of people amid heavy fighting, Syrian opposition activists and an international medical organization said. The advances in the northern Aleppo province brought the militants to within three 3 kms (2 miles) of the rebel-held town of Azaz and cut off supplies to Marea further south, another rebel stronghold north of Aleppo city.