BY BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed opposition fighters led by Syrian Kurdish forces captured more territory from the Islamic State group in the northern town of Tabqa on Monday, pushing the extremists to northern neighborhoods, close to one of Syria’s largest dams.
Tabqa is an important stronghold for the militants, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, Raqqa, and lies next to the IS-controlled Tabqa Dam, one of several controlling the flow of the Euphrates River.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces is the most effective ground force battling IS in Syria and will most likely lead the offensive to capture Raqqa in the near future.
A U.S. airlift of artillery and special forces advisers that placed them behind IS lines in March was a turning point in the Tabqa offensive and underscored the closeness between Washington and the SDF.
The Kurdish-led group said in a statement Monday that its fighters captured three more neighborhoods in Tabqa, where they have been advancing since mid-April.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS fighters withdrew from the Tabqa neighborhood known as Thawra City and are now gathered in two quarters near the dam. It said Monday’s fighting is concentrated in the only two remaining IS-held neighborhoods near the dam.
The Observatory said SDF fighters now control some 80 percent of Tabqa.
The SDF is made up of several Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen and Christian groups that have captured wide areas of northern Syria from IS over the past year under the cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The largest and most powerful groups in the coalition are the main Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and the Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ.
The big role that the YPG is playing in battles against the extremists — and their control of wide areas of northern Syria on the border with Turkey — has angered Ankara.
Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization because it’s close to the Kurdish PKK insurgent group in Turkey, which is designated as a terror organization by NATO and the U.S.
An SDF official appeared optimistic that that battle in Tabqa is getting close to an end with an imminent defeat of the extremists.
“Daesh is retreating from most of Tabqa’s neighborhoods,” Brig. Gen. Hussam al-Awwak, an Arab who heads public relations at SDF, told The Associated Press by telephone. He used an Arabic acronym to refer to IS and predicted his group would be in full control of the town within hours.
“Daesh fighters are almost finished in Taqba. It is only a matter of short time and we will control the city,” al-Awwak said.
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