ISIL under attack at Raqqa base after losing two districts

SDF fighters were battling on Sunday to dislodge the extremists from the Division 17 base, with backing from the US-led coalition bombing ISIL.

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces walk through an area seized from ISIL in western Raqqa on June 11, 2017. Delil Souleiman / AFP
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RAQQA // US-backed Syrian fighters seized a second district of Raqqa on Sunday and launched a renewed assault on a base north of the city, as they pursued an offensive against ISIL.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) broke into Raqqa on Tuesday last week after announcing the start of a final assault on the ISIL-held city.

On Sunday, the Arab-Kurdish alliance said its fighters had “liberated the neighbourhood of Al Romaniya on the western front of Raqqa, after two days of continued clashes”.

It was the first time the SDF was reported to have taken a western district of the city, after seizing control of Al Meshleb in the east.

The western approach to the city was littered with mangled motorcycles and unexploded mortar rounds fired by ISIL.

Inside the city, SDF commanders took up positions on the rooftops of modest one-storey homes which were eerily empty of civilians.

“Daesh is shooting anyone who sticks their head out,” one SDF fighter said.

Artillery, sniper fire and air strikes rang out throughout Sunday, and pillars of thick black smoke snaked up from the city skyline.

Bombardment had taken chunks out of the white dome of a neighbourhood mosque, and the notorious black ISIL flag hung limply from a roof.

After its capture by the extremist group in 2014, the city of Raqqa emerged as a key hub for ISIL’s operations in Syria, neighbouring Iraq, and beyond.

Before entering Raqqa last week, the SDF, an Arab-Kurdish alliance formed in 2015, spent seven months tightening the noose on the city from the north, east, and west.

While it has advanced steadily against ISIL inside east and west Raqqa, it has made less progress on the northern front, where ISIL fighters are using a military base and adjacent sugar factory to defend the approach into the city.

SDF fighters were battling on Sunday to dislodge the extremists from the Division 17 base, with backing from the US-led coalition bombing ISIL, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Blasts could be heard throughout the night because of the exchange of fire between the two sides,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Originally a Syrian army base, Division 17 was seized by ISIL in 2014 when it took control of swathes of the wider Raqqa province.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said ISIL had “heavily fortified” the base in anticipation of a ferocious SDF assault.

In the city’s east, SDF fighters were using Al Meshleb neighbourhood on Sunday as a launching pad for new operations against ISIL.

The alliance seized Al Meshleb on Wednesday, a day after announcing its final push for Raqqa city itself.

The district is one of the more built-up residential neighbourhoods in the city’s east, and the surrounding areas are made up of markets and small shops.

An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under ISIL rule in Raqqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of Syria.

Thousands have fled in recent months, and the UN humanitarian office estimates that about 160,000 people remain in the city.

They have no electricity and were facing severe water shortages, according to the activist collective known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

“Most of the bakeries are closed because of the lack of flour,” the group said on Sunday.

* Agence France-Presse