AIN ISSA (Syria) • United States- backed rebels have said they are launching an operation to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The attack ratchets up pressure on the militant group at a critical moment, with its fighters already battling an offensive by Iraqi security forces on their remaining Iraqi stronghold in the city of Mosul.
The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab armed groups, first announced yesterday that a campaign to retake Raqqa would begin within hours, with US forces providing air cover. Soon afterwards, it said that the operation, called Euphrates Anger, had begun.
"The general command of the Syria Democratic Forces announces the blessed start of its major military campaign to liberate the city of Raqqa," said Ms Jehan Sheikh Amad, an SDF spokesman.
The SDF called on Raqqa's civilians to avoid areas where ISIS militants are present and to go to "liberated territory".
An attack on Raqqa has been long expected, with United States Defence Secretary Ash Carter saying on Oct 25 that the battle to retake it would "overlap" with the assault on Mosul.
The top US military commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, said last month that the US-led coalition fighting ISIS wanted to move urgently to isolate Raqqa because of concerns about the group using the city as a base to plan and launch attacks against targets abroad.
France has also pushed for simultaneous action on both fronts. President Francois Hollande said last month there was evidence that ISIS fighters were fleeing to Raqqa, and that everything must be done to stop them from regrouping there.
Since its formation in 2015, the SDF has seized large swathes of territory along the Syria-Turkey border from ISIS and pushed the terrorist group back to within 30km of Raqqa.