US-backed SDF forces enter Syrias Raqqa from south

Syria (AFP) - US-backed Arab-Kurd alliance last week sealed off Islamic State militants’ last escape route.

US-backed fighters pierced militant-held 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.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have spent months closing in on the Islamic State (IS) groups bastion Raqqa and entered the citys east and west for the first time last month.

On Thursday, the US-backed Arab-Kurd alliance sealed off the militants’ last escape route by capturing territory on the southern bank of the Euphrates.

"Today, they entered Raqqas south for the first time and seized the al-Hal market," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Sunday.

He said some SDF fighters had advanced north across the Euphrates River, while others had attacked al-Hal from the adjacent district of al-Meshleb in Raqqas east.

"The market is fully under SDF control but IS is waging a counter-attack," Abdel Rahman said.

The SDFs Operation Wrath of the Euphrates announced it had captured the al-Hal market on Sunday.

Abdel Rahman also said 11 civilians, including four women and five children, were killed in coalition air strikes on the western Raqqa district of al-Daraiya late Sunday.

The new deaths put at more than 200 the civilian toll from coalition raids on Raqqa since the US-backed SDF entered the city on 6 June. 

The Observatory said "dozens" of SDF fighters had been killed in Raqqa in the same period, "including 36 in the past week". 

The SDF have since seized a handful of neighbourhoods in the east and west but are facing fierce resistance by IS as they push closer to the city centre.

SDF fighters were battling IS on Sunday inside the eastern district of al-Senaa, which the militants retook after an initial advance by the US-backed forces last month. 

Al-Senaa is key for both the SDF and IS because it is adjacent to the city centre, where most IS militants defending Raqqa are thought to be holed up.

IS pushed the SDF out of al-Senaa on Friday, using dozens of militants disguised in SDF uniforms as well as a slew of car bombs. 

SDF counter-offensive

After two days of a counter-offensive, the SDF had retaken about 70 percent of it by Sunday, the Observatory said. 

"Our forces are about 100 metres from Baghdad Gate," said Syrian Elite Forces spokesman Mohammad Khaled Shaker, referring to the entrance to Raqqas Old City. 

"We are combing the area and destroying tunnels to prevent any new infiltrations towards our positions," Shaker told AFP. 

According to the coalition, about 2,500 IS militants are defending the northern city.

IS overran Raqqa in 2014, transforming it into the de facto Syrian capital of its self-declared "caliphate," which it declared three years ago.

The city became infamous as the scene of some of the groups worst atrocities, including public beheadings, and is thought to have been a hub for planning attacks overseas.

The United Nations has expressed concern for as many as 100,000 civilians it says are still trapped in the city.

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