Kurdish-Led Forces Advance on IS-Held City in Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian Kurdish-led forces were closing in Saturday on the de-facto capital of the Islamic State group in Syria, seizing a cotton mill only a couple of miles north of the city and clashing with the militant group on a number of fronts, activists and Kurdish media reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S-led coalition airstrikes, advanced as they clashed with the militants in a multi-pronged offensive northeast and northwest of the city.

The offensive brings the SDF 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the northeast of the city, the Observatory said. Fighting was also reported about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) north of Raqqa and 13 kilometers (8 miles) to the northwest, the Observatory said.

The Raqqa Campaign, a Facebook page affiliated with the Kurdish-led forces, said the fighters seized the cotton mill, 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) north of the city on Saturday. Kurdish Hawar news agency said the Kurdish-led fighters also seized the office of a farmer’s union, a local ruling party headquarters and a prison used by the militants. The agency said the fighters seized about 186 kilometers (115 miles) north of the city in their advance in the last four days.

The Kurdish-led forces said Friday they expect to advance on Raqqa this summer, following their capture of a strategic town and dam, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the city.

“The city is near, very near,” said Nasser Haj Mansour, an adviser for the SDF.

Kurdish activist Mustafa Bali said the SDF are moving fast to reach the outskirts of Raqqa city, but that the battle for the city is likely to take time. He said in one push, the SDF moved through eight kilometers (5 miles) with good air cover, arriving 2.5 miles north of the city.

The activist-run Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently group said the public markets in Raqqa have been closed, suspecting it is because of the proximity of the clashes. Later, the activist-run group said the militants ordered merchants to evacuate the vegetable market for the next few days. The group didn’t elaborate.

The campaign to recapture Raqqa appeared to be accelerating following a decision by the Trump administration to arm the Kurdish-led forces with heavy weapons, giving a push to their ground partner to move toward the city.