By Agence France-Presse
US-backed forces cut off the last escape route for the Islamic State group from Raqa on Thursday, trapping the besieged jihadists inside their de facto Syrian capital.
But IS fighters hit back with a counterattack that included several suicide bombings against the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters trying to seize control of the city.
The SDF captured two villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River that the jihadists had been passing through to withdraw from the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The SDF has been able to completely encircle Raqa,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based monitoring group, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.
It was the latest setback for IS, also known as ISIS, which declared its “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq three years ago but has since lost most of the territory it once controlled.
It came too as Iraqi forces announced the recapture of an iconic mosque in IS’s last major Iraqi bastion Mosul, prompting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare “the end” of the “fake” jihadist state.
The SDF, backed by the US-led anti-IS coalition, broke into Raqa on June 6 after spending months chipping away at jihadist territory around the city.
Its fighters have since captured two eastern and two western districts of the city and are pushing towards the city centre, where IS fighters are holding tens of thousands of civilians.
Around 2,500 jihadists are fighting in the city, according to British Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander for the US-led coalition.
The SDF had surrounded the jihadists from the north, east and west but they were still able to escape across the Euphrates, which forms the southern border of the city.
Thursday’s advance saw SDF fighters capture the villages of Kasrat Afnan and Kasab on the southern bank of the Euphrates, cutting off the route the jihadists were using to withdraw to territory IS controls in the Syrian desert and in Deir Ezzor province.
The SDF has “continued to advance eastward south of the Euphrates River, moving to completely encircle ISIS in Raqa,” said Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition.
“The SDF now control all high-speed avenues of approach into Raqa from the south,” he added.
But the jihadists appear determined to make a bloody last stand.
Several dozen jihadists disguised in SDF uniforms launched an attack from the city centre, which they still control, on two districts in the southeast of the city.
They carried out three suicide car bomb attacks, deployed drones armed with explosives, seized six SDF positions and killed several fighters, Abdel Rahman said.
“Even totally besieged, jihadists are able to carry out operations,” he added.