BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian Kurdish-led force fighting the Islamic State group north of the country is on the verge of surrounding a wide area north of the IS stronghold of Raqqa, a spokeswoman for the group said Thursday.
Cihan Ehmed of the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces told The Associated Press that its fighters are advancing on two fronts north of Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS' self-declared caliphate. The push from Ein Issa and Suluk north of Raqqa has been ongoing for days under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
The SDF, which includes Kurdish, Arab, Syriac and Turkmen fighters, say they have committed 30,000 fighters to the offensive aiming to eventual recapture the city of Raqqa, which was announced on Sunday. Iraq is meanwhile waging a major offensive to drive IS from the northern city of Mosul.
Ehmed said once the forces coming from the two directions meet north of Raqqa, they will surround 550 square kilometers (212 square miles) of territory controlled by the extremists.
"The operations are ongoing according to the plan," she said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said many people are fleeing areas of fighting north of Raqqa. It added that SDF fighters have advanced north of Raqqa, capturing new areas and raising to 17 the number of villages and farms taken from IS since the offensive began.
Later on Thursday, the SDF said on social media that its fighters have captured three farms, a village, and have approached the village of Hayes where intense clashes are ongoing.
The operation to recapture Raqqa has been dubbed "Euphrates Rage" and a joint operations command has been set up to coordinate various factions taking part in the battles.
Elsewhere in Syria, a rocket fired by rebels struck a school in the capital Damascus' central al-Mohajireen neighborhood wounding three children, state media said without providing further details. In the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of Douma and Saqba, government airstrikes killed at least 11 civilians, including four children and three women, according to the Syrian Civil Defense in Damascus suburbs. The Observatory also said 11 were killed, but said they included four women.
In the northern city of Aleppo, seven people were wounded, some critically, when rebels shelled two government-held neighborhoods, state news agency SANA said. Later on Thursday, pro-government media also said allied troops moved in on new rebel advances in the western part of the city, regaining control of parts of the strategic Al-Assad district amid intense clashes.
The rebels had seized a couple of strategic areas in western Aleppo since they launched an offensive on government-held parts of Aleppo on Oct. 28 in an attempt to break the siege imposed on areas they have controlled since July. The siege on eastern Aleppo was coupled with a punishing bombing campaign by Syrian aircraft and supported by Russia, which has been backing the government of President Bashar Assad. Since late October, Russia said it would halt the airstrikes, amid rising civilian casualties, urging rebels to leave the territory.
A statement by Russian Defense Ministry Thursday said such halts would continue. Russia had earlier bristled at extending the breaks in the fighting in Aleppo, saying it would play into the hands of the insurgents.
"The humanitarian pauses are undoubtedly needed," said Spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. "But we believe that simply extending their duration without offering real assistance to civilians, and allow the terrorists to restore their capabilities, would be unproductive and defy common sense." Russia and Syria's government refer to all armed opposition as "terrorists."
Insurgents have refused to leave, saying the halts are not supervised by the U.N. and lack safety guarantees for evacuation. The U.N. has failed to secure humanitarian aid to the besieged Aleppo districts during the halts. During the last Russian-declared "pause" on Friday, rebels fired at one of the corridors, wounding two Russian servicemen and a Syrian journalist.