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US-backed forces enter major extremist-held Syria town

By AFP - Apr 24,2017 - Last updated at Apr 24,2017

BEIRUT — A US-backed alliance of Arab-Kurdish forces entered the key extremist-held town of Tabaqa on Monday as they pursued their campaign against the Daesh terror group in northern Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have set their sights on Tabaqa and the adjacent dam as part of their broader offensive for the city of Raqqa, the Syrian heart of the extremists' self-styled "caliphate" since 2014.

Supported by US-led coalition air strikes and special forces advisers, the SDF surrounded Tabaqa in early April.

On Monday, they entered it for the first time, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

"They seized control of several points in the town's south and were advancing on its western edges," said observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

He said US-led coalition warplanes were carrying out "intense" strikes in support of the offensive, but that one raid had killed three women and five children trying to flee Tabaqa.

"One raid killed eight civilians from a single family, including five children, who were trying to escape in their car via the town's southwest," Abdel Rahman said. 

In an online statement, the SDF said it had captured Daesh-held positions in west Tabaqa, including a roundabout, and part of a southern district.

“There are now clearing operations in the liberated positions,” the SDF said.

Tabaqa sits on a key supply route about 55 kilometres west of Raqqa, and served as an important Daesh command base, housing the group’s main prison.

According to the Syrian Economic Task Force, a Dubai-based think tank, Tabaqa is home to 85,000 people including Daesh militants from other areas.

The assault on Tabaqa began in late March when SDF forces and their US-led coalition allies were airlifted behind Daesh lines.

 

‘Real battle begins now’ 

 

The ensuing fight has been intense, with Daesh dispatching suicide bombers daily to try to slow the offensive and coalition warplanes intensifying their raids.

“The real battle begins now,” Abdel Rahman said on Monday, adding that Daesh extremists had “no way” out of the town.

For months, the SDF has been advancing on Raqqa, hoping to encircle it before a final attack. 

The city was home to around 240,000 residents before 2011, and more than 80,000 people have fled to it from other parts of the country.

Syria’s war has left more than 320,000 people dead since it began with protests in 2011 that were brutally repressed by the government of President Bashar Al Assad.

Regional and international powers have since been drawn into the complex conflict, in which internationally prohibited weapons such as cluster bombs and toxic gas have been used.

On April 4, a suspected chemical attack killed 87 civilians, including many children, in the northwestern rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun. 

Much of the international community blamed the Syrian regime, and three days later 59 US cruise missiles targeted the airbase from where the attack was launched.

 

Assad ally Moscow protested the US action and consistently sought to deflect blame from Damascus over the incident.

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