A USA -backed Syrian force said Tuesday it has begun an offensive to capture the northern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group, after months of clearing operations.
The offensive has also seen the SDF a multi-ethnic group but dominated by the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), receive support from USA military advisers and weapons deliveries.
Seized by the jihadists in early 2014, Raqa became notorious as a hub for IS's operations in Syria, Iraq and beyond. The city has been the scene of some of IS' worst atrocities, including gruesome executions, public displays of bodies and the trafficking of women.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the fight against Islamic State, said in a statement Tuesday that the battle for Raqqa is expected to be long and challenging, but necessary to dismantle the militants' so-called caliphate. After months sealing off access routes to the city from the east, north and west, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday entered city limits for the first time.
The Raqqa campaign commander Rojda Felat said an assault had begun on the al-Mushleb district at the city's south-eastern outskirts, confirming an earlier report by the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Tuesday Ankara will retaliate immediately if the operation by US-backed forces to capture Raqqa presents a threat to Turkey.
The strike on the school hosting displaced people occurred in the eastern Mashlab district, targeted since this morning by an offensive of Kurdish-Syrian militias supported by the US. The coalition appears keen to expel IS from its last major urban bastions before the "caliphate" turns three years old later this month.
Elsewhere in Syria, at least 11 people were killed and 16 others wounded in government air raids on the southern Deraa province, the Observatory said.
"We all saw the heinous attack in Manchester, England", Townsend said, referring to the terror attack late last month at an Ariana Grande concert, which ISIS has claimed credit for. "ISIS threatens all of our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our own homelands as well".
The SDF launched its operation to take Raqqa - dubbed Wrath of the Euphrates - in November.
"On Tuesday, SDF spokesman Talal Sello announces a new phase in" the great battle to liberate the city of Raqa, the so-called capital of terrorism and terrorists".
The US-led coalition has said 3,000 to 4,000 IS fighters are thought to be holed up in Raqqa city, where they have erected defenses against the anticipated assault.
Sello urged civilians inside the city to keep away from IS positions and from the frontlines.
The SDF has said it will hand control of Raqqa to a civilian council from the city after its capture, echoing the pattern in other areas retaken by the SDF. At this point, however, ISIS still has avenues leading out of the city, primarily toward the city of Palmyra.
An estimated 230,000 civilians are living in Raqqa, according to the UN. Thousands have managed to flee to areas held by the SDF. Yesterday, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein accused IS of murdering dozens of civilians to prevent them from fleeing Mosul last week. The coalition says it tries hard to avoid civilian casualties and investigates any that are reported.
The Syrian war began in March 2011 with widespread protests against the regime, but it has since morphed into a multi-front war that has left over 400,000 people dead.
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