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Coalition strike ‘kills 20 civilians’ near Daesh-held Raqqa

By AFP - Nov 10,2016 - Last updated at Nov 10,2016

A peshmerga soldier returns fire as his convoy drives through an area exposed to a sniper fire on Monday, as the Iraqi Kurdish forces pushed deeper into the town of Bashiqa during street battles against Daesh militants (AFP photo)

AIN ISSA, Syria — US-backed forces pressed offensives Wednesday on Daesh strongholds in Syria and Iraq, as an air strike by the American-led coalition reportedly killed 20 civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Supported by coalition air raids, Iraqi forces have pushed into Daesh's Mosul stronghold and a Kurdish-Arab militia alliance has been advancing on the extremists' de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a coalition strike overnight had hit the Daesh-held village of Al Heisha, about 40 kilometres north of Raqqa.

Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said nine women and two children were among the 20 civilians killed and that 32 others had been wounded.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the militia alliance which Washington is supporting in the assault, denied the civilian deaths.

"There is no such thing, and any such claims are [Daesh] news," SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed told AFP.

Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the coalition, told AFP it appeared there had been strikes in the area.

"After an initial assessment... the coalition confirms it did conduct strikes in the area described in the allegation," he said.

"However, more specific information is needed to conclusively determine responsibility" for civilian casualties.

The observatory said the latest deaths brought the number of civilians killed since US-led air strikes in Syria began in September 2014 to 680, including 169 children.


'We left everything behind' 

Some 200 families had fled Al Heisha, according to an SDF official. 

"Daesh fighters brought heavy weapons to our village and stayed among us so that if there were strikes they would hit us," 45-year-old Saada Al Aboud said after fleeing the town.

"They wouldn't let us leave. We had to escape by running out into the fields, with our children and old people. What else could we do? We left everything behind."

The SDF launched the drive towards Raqqa on Saturday, upping pressure on the extremists three weeks after Iraqi forces began their assault on Mosul.

Raqqa and Mosul are the last major cities in Syria and Iraq under Daesh control, after the extremists suffered losses that greatly reduced the size of the self-styled “caliphate” they declared in mid-2014, following their seizure of large parts of both countries.

The US-led coalition, which launched its air campaign against Daesh two years ago, hopes that driving the group from the two cities will deal it a knockout blow.

The SDF has been pushing south from areas near the Turkish border towards Raqqa, seizing a string of villages and moving to positions about 35 kilometres from the city.

An AFP correspondent east of Ain Issa, the main staging point for the offensive, said coalition aircraft could be seen on Wednesday carrying out repeated air strikes in the distance and that Daesh extremists were shelling SDF positions. 

In Iraq, an official said on Tuesday that Kurdish peshmerga fighters had seized the town of Bashiqa near Mosul, which would be a final step in securing the eastern approaches to Mosul.

There were still pockets of resistance in the town, officials said, and an AFP correspondent in Bashiqa reported continued air strikes, gunfire and explosions on Tuesday.

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