The US-backed fighters have reached a major milestone by making their way to the outskirts of a key jihadist-held town in northern Syria. The move is part of an offensive against the Islamic State group's bastion Raqa.
Tabqa was surrounded by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an Arab-Kurdish alliance supported by US-led coalition air strikes and special forces advisers, in early April. The forces have managed to cut the main supply routes in Tabqa. The border offensive for Raqa considers the town and a vast nearby dam as key prizes. The de facto Syrian capital of ISIS self-proclaimed caliphate is about 55 kilometers to the east.
One of the SDF military sources made a statement on Saturday saying that the clashes were at their height and that the alliance's forces were trying to penetrate the town from the east and west.
Reports indicate that the alliance advanced overnight after driving the jihadists from two areas just southeast and southwest of the town. The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman reported that SDF fighters are within a few hundred meters of Tabqa. Rahman also pointed out that heavy clashes were under way around the two suburbs as ISIS attempted to counter-attack.
The campaign in Raqa was launched by SDF in November and has since captured most of the surrounding province. The SDF have been backed by US-led coalition air strikes, along with advisers and even an American Marines artillery battery. Approximately 240,000 residents resided in Raqa before 2011. However, more than 80,000 people have fled to the city from other parts of the country since the start of Syria's civil war.
A key supply route into Raqa is close to Tabqa, the route has served as an important ISIS command base, housing the group's main prison. The Syria war has left more than 320,000 people dead since it began with protests in 2011 that were brutally repressed.
The war has drawn in jihadist groups as well as regional and international powers in a complex multi-sided conflict. The war has caused millions to flee their homes and triggered a major humanitarian and refugee crisis.
A car bomb blast was reported on Saturday after it killed several people at a transit point for Syrians being transferred out of two besieged government-held towns under an evacuation deal. The explosion is said to have taken place at Rashidin, west of Aleppo. The area had buses waiting to transport thousands of people who left Fuaa and Kafraya. A delayed evacuation deal brokered by Iran and Qatar saw more than 7,000 people who had been under crippling siege for more than two years leave four Syrian towns on Friday.
Approximately 5,000 people were loaded onto buses leaving Fuaa and Kafraya while 2,200 were evacuated from rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani. However, thousands were stuck on the road Saturday in rebel-held Rashidin.
One of the AFP correspondents in Rashidin where 5,000 evacuees from the two government-held towns were awaiting onward transport revealed that the buses had yet to move 30 hours after the operation started. Approximately 2,220 evacuees from Madaya and Zabadani were also blocked at a transit point in government-held territory.
Reports from a rebel official confirmed that there were differences over the number of loyalist fighters leaving. The government has touted the deal to evacuate the towns in a string of such agreements after the government saw it as the best way to end the fighting. The rebels say they have been forced out by bombardment and siege.