US-backed forces announce ‘great battle’ to capture Syria’s Raqa

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said on Tuesday they were launching a new phase in their assault on the Islamic State group’s bastion Raqa, after advancing to the city’s outskirts.

“We declare today the start of the great battle to liberate the city of Raqa, the so-called capital of terrorism and terrorists,” SDF spokesman Talal Sello told reporters in the village of Hazima, north of the city.

With air support from a US-led coalition, the SDF has spent months sealing off the jihadists in Raqa, the heart of their territory in war-ravaged Syria.

By Tuesday morning, the Arab-Kurdish alliance was attacking the city from the north, west and east, Sello said.

“With the international coalition’s warplanes and the state-of-the-art weapons they provided to us, we will seize Raqa from Daesh,” Sello told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

He asked civilians inside the city to keep away from IS positions and from the front lines.

As the SDF has drawn closer to the city, reports of civilian casualties in coalition air strikes have swelled.

On Monday, the Observatory said a coalition bombing raid killed 21 civilians as they tried to escape Raqa by dinghy on the Euphrates River.

The same route had been used by IS fighters, Abdel Rahman said.

More than 320,000 people have been killed and millions more have fled their homes since the civil war erupted in Syria in March 2011.