US-backed forces take neighbourhood in Raqa

JAZRA, Syria, July 17, (Agencies): USbacked forces said Monday they had seized a new neighbourhood from the Islamic State group in the jihadist stronghold of Raqa in northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, have been pressing an operation to capture the jihadist stronghold since last year, and they penetrated the city in June.

“The Al-Yarmuk district was liberated yesterday,” the SDF’s spokeswoman for the Raqa operation, Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, told AFP. Al-Yarmuk is a large neighbourhood on the southwestern outskirts of the city. “The operation is continuing but there are many fierce clashes,” Ahmed said, speaking in the town of Ain Issa, 50 kms (30 miles) north of Raqa.

“We are taking steady and sound steps. What is important to us is not speed, but liberating civilians and eliminating DAESH (IS),” she added. An AFP reporter in Jazra suburb on the western outskirts of the city on Monday saw US-led coalition forces at a joint position with SDF fighters firing artillery in the direction of IS posts deeper inside Raqa.

Progress inside Raqa has been hampered by extensive mining of neighbourhoods, which has slowed advancing SDF fighters and also had devastating consequences for civilians trying to flee. “There have been many casualties, fighters and civilians, caused by mines,” an SDF commander told AFP, without giving his name. “Yesterday, we buried six civilians after a mine exploded as they were trying to escape,” he added.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF had advanced in Al-Yarmuk but did not yet fully control the district. The monitor said the militia held the western portion of the district but that heavy fighting was continuing. It also reported that hundreds of civilians had fl ed IS-held parts of the city towards areas now controlled by the SDF in the past 48 hours.

The SDF on its social media accounts said Monday its forces “managed to free about 500 civilians who were trapped inside the Al-Daraiya and Al-Tayar neighbourhoods, as well as 150 others from the Old City” inside Raqa. Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said a steady stream of civilians was fl eeing IS-held districts. “Whenever there is a lull in the fighting, they leave towards areas held by the SDF,” he said. The Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group, estimates the US-backed force currently holds around 35 percent of the city.

The SDF began an operation to capture Raqa in November 2016 and spent months taking territory around the city before finally entering it. It has been backed by heavy US-led coalition air strikes, including several on Monday that killed at least three civilians, according to the Observatory. More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

Turkish-backed rebels clashed with Kurdish fighters from a US-backed alliance in northwestern Syria on Monday in escalating violence between the two sides, officials and a monitoring group said.

The clashes took place around the village of Ain Daqna and the nearby Menagh air base north of Aleppo, while Turkish forces stepped up shelling positions in other areas, the officials and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. “There are big clashes happening on the Ain Daqna axis, between us and the Turks and their mercenaries,” Rojhat Roj, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia said. Mostafa Bali of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish and Arab force which is dominated by the YPG, said some Turkish-backed rebels had been killed and captured.

Both the YPG and SDF have received US support, and are backed by Washington in its fight against Islamic State in Raqa, further east. The British-based Observatory, which monitors the war using sources on the ground, said the clashes and shelling were an attempt by the Turkish side to advance. Syrian rebels said this month they were preparing to join the Turkish military in a major new offensive against Kurdish forces in northwestern Syria. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdish PKK group which is waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Ankara’s operation “Euphrates Shield”, launched last year as an incursion into Syria to support rebel groups there, has focused on driving both Islamic State and the YPG away from the border.

EU sanctions
The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions against 16 more high-ranking military Syrian officials and scientists over chemical weapons attacks on civilians, a statement said. The move by the bloc’s foreign ministers brings to 255 people now facing a travel ban and an assets freeze over President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on civilians during a fiveyear civil war.

“The EU added these 16 persons for their role in the development and use of chemical weapons against the civilian population,” an EU statement said. The EU will release the names of those hit by the sanctions on Tuesday, it said. The UN’s chemical watchdog, the OPCW, last month concluded that sarin was used as a chemical weapon in the April 4 attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun that killed at least 87 people including children.

The sanctions decision “shows the resolve of the UK and the rest of our friends in Europe in dealing with those who are responsible for chemical weapons attacks,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters just before the decision was announced. Syria is already subject to an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze of the assets of the Syrian central bank held in the EU, as well as export restrictions. It also is under sanctoins on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression as well as on equipment and technology for the monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications.

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