Air strikes pummel Syria’s Raqa as US-backed forces advance on IS

Raqa (Syria) (AFP) – Heavy bombardment and fierce fighting shook the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold Raqa on Monday, as US-backed forces said they captured a new neighbourhood from entrenched jihadists.

Bursts of gunfire and artillery as well as the thud of air strikes conducted by the US-led coalition filled the air in western neighbourhoods of Raqa, on what AFP’s correspondent said was the heaviest day of bombardment to date.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, updating an earlier toll, said the air strikes killed at least 10 civilians, two of them children.

Thick pillars of black smoke dotted the city skyline, lined with bombed-out concrete homes and the damaged minaret of a mosque.

“Our American friends are bombing with mortars,” a fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said after a string of blasts near the front line in western Raqa.

The SDF’s Kurdish and Arab fighters have been pressing an operation to capture the jihadist stronghold since last year with coalition air support and the backing of a US Marines artillery battery.

An AFP reporter in Jazra suburb on the western outskirts of the city on Monday saw coalition forces at a joint position with SDF fighters firing artillery in the direction of IS posts deeper inside Raqa.

– Regime forces advance south of Raqa –

On another front, Syrian government forces have swept across territory south of Raqa, capturing a string of villages and oilfields from the jihadists, state media said Monday.

“Over the past two days, army units recaptured a number of villages and oilfields in western parts of Deir Ezzor province and southern parts of Raqa,” the official news agency SANA said.

The Syrian Observatory said the government advance was backed by heavy Syrian and Russian air strikes.

“Regime forces have captured between 1,500 and 1,800 square kilometres (580 and 700 sq miles) in Raqa province over the past 48 hours,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

In its separate operation, the SDF has spent…

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