BEIRUT, Aug 1, (Agencies): US-backed forces battling to oust the Islamic State group from its Syrian bastion Raqqa have advanced in the city’s south, seizing a new neighbourhood, a spokesman and monitor said Tuesday.
The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces militia (SDF) began a campaign to capture Raqqa from IS last year, slowly encircling the city before breaking into it for the first time in June.
Backed by US-led coalition air strikes, the alliance now controls more than 50 percent of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
“Overnight, the SDF advanced in the south of the city, after taking control of the Nazlet Shahada neighbourhood,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
He said SDF fighters also controlled large parts of the adjacent neighbourhood of Hisham Bin Abdel Malik, after advancing in the south from both the eastern and western fronts.
“Daesh (IS) effectively no longer has a presence in the southern neighbourhoods of Raqqa, after SDF forces coming from the eastern front met with those advancing from the western front,” he added.
Nuri Mahmud, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia that dominates the SDF, confirmed to AFP that the SDF was advancing in the south.
“DAESH has been almost completely eliminated from the Nazlet Shahada and Hisham Bin Abdel Malik neighbourhoods,” he added.
Writing on Twitter, the US envoy to the international coalition against IS praised the SDF’s advances.
“Significant progress in Raqqa last 24 hours, with key territory seized by SDF forces & 100s of civilians freed,” Brett McGurk wrote.
Abdel Rahman said the fighting was now centred around the area south of the city centre and on the outskirts of the district of Hisham Bin Abdel Malik.
“The SDF is a few hundred metres (yards) from DAESH’s main headquarters in Clock Square, which is where DAESH carried out executions,” he said.
He added that SDF fighters were also on the outskirts of Al-Thakana neighbourhood, one of the city’s most densely-populated.
SDF fighters have faced fierce resistance since they entered Raqqa in early June, and the fighting has displaced thousands of civilians.
Meanwhile, a committee of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s eastern border region says tens of thousands of the group will remain where they are despite an arrangement offered to them to return to Syria.
Khaled Raad, a member of the refugees’ Coordination Committee with the Lebanese government, says the vast majority of the refugees in Lebanon’s Arsal border region will not accept to return to Syria, for fear of war, hardship, and oppressive jihadist rule. He spoke to the AP on Tuesday.
Lebanon and Syria are waiting for the final arrangements to be completed with al-Qaeda-linked militants to bus 9,000 fighters, their family members, and other refugees from the Arsal area to Syria’s northwest, al-Qaeda-dominated Idlib province.
The UN’s refugee agency in Lebanon estimates 51,000 Syrian refugees are in the Arsal region.
Turkey on Tuesday lashed out at what it called “unacceptable” remarks by a senior US official suggesting Ankara had encouraged the rise of al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria’s Idlib province.
Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said Idlib province had become “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven”.
In comments to the Washington-based think tank the Middle East Institute last week, McGurk criticised some US partners for sending in “tens of thousands of tons of weapons” to Syria. He did not name which partners.
He added that the way those foreign fighters come in to Syria “may not have been the best approach” because al-Qaeda had taken full advantage of it.
“And Idlib now is a huge problem. It is an al-Qaeda safe haven right on the border of Turkey. So that’s something, obviously, we will be in very close discussions with the Turks on.”
But Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said it was not Turkey which controlled Idlib province.
“Attempting to associate Turkey with that terror organisation in Idlib, making such an implication is unacceptable,” Kalin told the TvNet broadcaster.
“Why? Because we are not controlling Idlib.”
Idlib is the only province in Syria that remains entirely beyond regime control after having been captured in 2015 by an alliance of jihadists and rebels.
Kalin said McGurk’s comment could not be considered to have been made with a “good intention.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu added that Ankara had protested against the “provocative” comments, without elaborating.
McGurk has been a frequent target of the ire of the Turkish government for comments supporting Kurdish groups labelled as terror organisations by Ankara.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has called for McGurk to be fired, claiming he was backing Kurdish militants in Syria.
In June, McGurk had talks with Turkish officials in Ankara.
The alliance that captured the Idlib province was dominated by al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the rebel Ahrar al-Sham, a key Islamist faction backed by neighbouring Turkey and Gulf states.
In the years since the capture, Al-Nusra ostensibly split with al-Qaeda, renaming itself Fateh al-Sham Front and becoming the backbone of the so-called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) coalition that last month captured Idlib city.
Turkey’s NATO allies in the early years of the civil war accused Ankara of turning a blind eye — or even aiding — the rise of Islamist groups in Syria including Islamic State jihadists. But Turkey always angrily rejected the charges.