BEIRUT • United States-backed Syrian militias said they temporarily halted military operations near the hydroelectric Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River yesterday to allow government engineers access to carry out work.
There is official concern that the dam has been damaged and needs repair to avoid potential catastrophe, but a spokesman for a US-backed group said later that the dam is safe.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias supported by the US-led coalition, has been battling militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) near the dam west of the Syrian city of Raqqa, as part of a campaign to capture the militant group's stronghold.
"To ensure the safety of the Euphrates dam... we have decided to halt operations around the dam for four hours," the SDF's Raqqa campaign said in a statement. The decision followed a request by the Syrian government's water authority.
The director of the Syrian government's General Authority of Euphrates Dam, which formerly operated the huge project, blamed US strikes in the past two days for disrupting internal control systems and putting the dam out of service.
The United Nations had warned this year of the risk of catastrophic flooding from the dam, which is at risk from high water levels, deliberate sabotage by ISIS and further damage from coalition air strikes.
The dam, Syria's largest, stretches 4.5km across the Euphrates river. ISIS captured the dam and a nearby air base, located about 40 km upstream from Raqqa, at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
But SDF spokesman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said later that the dam was neither damaged nor malfunctioning and government engineers had inspected its operations.
The SDF, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, seized the Tabqa military airport on Sunday. With help from the US-led coalition, it has been closing in on Raqqa, ISIS' self-styled capital, for months.
Civilian residents of the city have been ordered to evacuate.
Another SDF spokesman Talal Silo said its fighters had seized "60 to 70 per cent" of the airport but were still engaged in intense clashes with the ultra-hardline militants inside the air base and on its outskirts.
Hundreds of families were fleeing the city of Tabqa to the relative safety of outlying areas as US-led coalition air strikes intensified in the past few days, according to former residents in touch with relatives.
Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said a week-long campaign of US-led strikes on Tabqa and the western countryside of Raqqa province had killed at least 90 civilians, a quarter of them children, while injuring dozens.
A group of civic bodies and local and tribal notables from Raqqa province warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in Raqqa as a result of the escalating campaign to seize the militants' de facto capital.
A statement by the Turkey-based opposition-run Local Council of Raqqa Province urged the international coalition to provide safe passage to civilians and ending bombing of infrastructure.