World

'Key milestone' reached in Raqqa

US-backed forces enter most heavily fortified area of ISIS' de facto capital

DAMASCUS: US-backed forces in Syria have entered the most heavily fortified area of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in what a Unites States official says is a "key milestone" in the war against the militant group.

Success in Raqqa and major advances by US-backed forces in Mosul, a second ISIS stronghold in Iraq, represent a powerful double blow to the violent extremist group.

The US Central Command said in a statement yesterday that coalition forces supported an advance by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters "into the most heavily fortified portion of Raqqa by opening two small gaps in the Rafiqah Wall that surrounds the Old City".

The SDF faced heavy resistance, as the ISIS fighters used the wall as a combat position and planted mines and improvised explosive devices (IED) against advancing fighters.

"Conducting targeted strikes on two small portions of the wall allowed coalition and partner forces to breach the Old City at locations of their choosing," the statement read.

"This prevented ISIS from using pre-positioned mines, IED and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, protected SDF and civilian lives, and preserved the integrity of the greatest portion of the wall."

A 25-metre section of the wall was targeted, which "will help preserve the remainder of the overall 2,500-metre wall," it added.

Mr Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS, said on Twitter that breaching the wall in Raqqa was a "key milestone in campaign to liberate the city".

The US-backed fighters entered Raqqa from the south for the first time on Sunday, crossing the Euphrates River to enter a new part of the Syrian city, a monitor said.

BREAKTHROUGH

The SDF have spent months closing in on the ISIS bastion and entered the city's east and west for the first time last month.

According to the coalition, some 2,500 ISIS militants are defending the city.

ISIS overran Raqqa in 2014, turning it into the de facto capital of its self-declared "caliphate".

The city was the scene of some of the group's worst atrocities, including public beheadings.

The United Nations warn that up to 100,000 civilians are still trapped in the city.

Mr McGurk earlier tweeted: "ISIS terrorists down to less than one square kilometre in Mosul and totally surrounded in Raqqa." - AFP

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