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In Syria US-backed fighters advance on IS-held Raqa

The advances bring the SDF closer than ever to the jihadist group's most important remaining Syrian stronghold.

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Commanders of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, in the recaptured Syrian town of Tabqa as they advance in their battle for the Islamic State's (IS) bastion of Raqa play

Commanders of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, in the recaptured Syrian town of Tabqa as they advance in their battle for the Islamic State's (IS) bastion of Raqa

(AFP)

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces militia has advanced to within four kilometres north and east of the Islamic State group's Syrian bastion Raqa, a spokesperson and monitor said Tuesday.

The advances bring the SDF, a Kurdish-Arab alliance, closer than ever to the jihadist group's most important remaining Syrian stronghold.

But the fighters are still 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Raqa to the west, and they do not control any territory directly to the city's south, which is bordered by the Euphrates river.

The SDF "on Monday took three villages four kilometres (two miles) north of Raqa", spokesman Talal Sello told AFP.

The alliance also seized two more villages four kilometres to the east of the city on Monday night, he added.

"We are close to encircling Raqa from the east and the north, but we need to advance on the western front before launching the assault (on the city) at the right moment."

Last week, the SDF seized the town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam, around 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqa, and the alliance will now push on towards their next target, the town of Al-Mansura.

The SDF has said the long-awaited attack on Raqa would start at the beginning of the summer, probably in June.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor confirmed the capture of the five villages, saying the SDF had advanced by four kilometres on the northern front and two kilometres on the eastern one.

"The SDF wants to link up its troops to the north and east of Raqa," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

IS fighters are still able to move in and out of the city via the area to its south, crossing the Euphrates by boat, according to SDF sources.

From there they head further south to the IS-held town of Al-Sukhna in Homs province, and onwards east, to Deir Ezzor province, which remains almost completely under the control of the jihadists.

The SDF launched an operation to retake Raqa city in November 2016 and it has received key backing from the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes on IS.

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