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Syria rebels capture IS-held airport near Raqqa

March 27, 2017

A US-backed Syrian alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias has taken a military airport in northern Syria held by the self-styled 'Islamic State' (IS). The move opens the path for an assault on the IS stronghold of Raqqa.

Syrien SDF Kämpfer Region Deir Ezzor
Image: Getty Images/AFP

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by a US-led international coalition - said it had seized the air base on Sunday.

"The Syrian Democratic Forces have full control of Tabqa military airport and operations to clear and demine are under way in order to secure the airport fully," spokesman Talal Sello told the French news agency AFP.

The SDF plans to use the air-base capture as a landing pad to launch an assault on the city of Raqqa, aiming to capture the IS stronghold. The extremist group has controlled Raqqa since 2014, and it's considered to be IS militants' de-facto capital.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said coalition airstrikes have killed 89 civilians in Raqqa province in the past week, including 35 in a school in the village of Mansoura. The coalition has said it is investigating.

Karte Syrien al-Bab ENG

The US has provided substantial air and ground support to the SDF, which is closing in on Raqqa.

SDF spokesperson Talal Silo said its fighters had seized "60 to 70 percent" of the airport but were still engaged in clashes with the militants inside the air base and on its outskirts.

IS captured the Tabqa Dam - aka the Euphrates Dam, which is about 40 km (25 miles) upstream from Raqqa and the air base - at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The SDF has driven IS from large parts of northern Syria and fights separately from other rebel groups seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Danger of collapse

The UN warned this year of flooding in Syria from the dam, which is at risk from high water levels, deliberate sabotage by IS and further damage from air strikes.

The director of the Syrian government's General Authority of Euphrates Dam, which formerly operated the huge project, blamed US strikes in the last two days for disrupting internal control systems and putting the dam out of service.

"Before the latest strikes by the Americans, the dam was working. Two days ago, the dam was functioning normally," Nejm Saleh told Reuters. "God forbid ... there could be collapses or big failures that could lead to flooding," Saleh said. IS meanwhile said that Tabqa dam had been put out of service and all flood gates were closed. 

Syrien Tabqa Talsperre
Image: picture-alliance/AA/S. M. Leyla

SDF spokesperson Silo denied that coalition strikes hit the structure of the dam and said the air drop landing last week was conducted to prevent any damage to the main structure by engaging the militants away from the site.

"The capture of the dam is being conducted slowly and carefully, and this is why the liberation of the dam needs more time," Silo said, adding that militants dug inside the dam in the belief that they would not be hit for fear of damaging the structure.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country's conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

jbh/gsw (AFP, AP, Reuters)

Please have a look at the following picture gallery from December 14, 2016.