US-backed rebels push for ISIL’s de facto capital in Syria as government forces pound the southern city of Deraa.
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured several strategic neighbourhoods just outside of ISIL’s de facto capital in Raqqa province, the group said in a press release.
The SDF made gains outside Raqqa city, where Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) fighters are currently surrounded by the Kurdish forces.
SDF said they captured al-Romaniya neighbourhood west of Raqqa city early on Monday.
Al-Romaniya is the third neighbourhood of Raqqa city to be captured by the SDF since the launch of the fifth phase of the Raqqa offensive last week.
The SDF, a group of Kurdish and Arab fighters, are currently battling ISIL for control of Sinaaya and Hetin neighbourhoods east and west of Raqqa city, the press release said.
ISIL captured Raqqa from rebel groups in 2014 and have since used it as their home base.
The US-led coalition said 3,000 to 4,000 ISIL fighters are thought to be holed up in Raqqa city, in which about 160,000 civilians remain, according to the UN.
The SDF forces have captured several neighbourhoods in Raqqa city since Tuesday, including the eastern neighbourhood of Mashlab.
Backed by US-led coalition air strikes, the SDF began a major offensive on Tuesday to seize the city.
Ahmad, a Tabqa-based activist who would give only his first name, told Al Jazeera that civilians are expecting ISIL to retreat or surrender in a matter of days.
“People are barely surviving inside Raqqa. ISIL basically told residents if they want to leave, they can leave but without taking any of their belongings.
“If the Kurds take Raqqa, displaced people can go back to their homes. We are literally left with just three options: the Syrian government, ISIL or the Kurds. We choose the Kurds,” he said.
Many of those leaving Raqqa are heading north in search of safety towards Ain Issa, Manbij, Mahmoudli and Tal Abyad, all within a 120km radius of the northern Syrian city.
Some, however, have headed for the Berm – the border area between southern Syria and Jordan, almost 700km away – where humanitarian assistance is almost non-existent, Doctor’s Without Borders (MSF) said in a report released on June 9.
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist group in Raqqa, said coalition air strikes have destroyed several buildings, including schools and mosques, in the past week.
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) June 11, 2017
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that at least 24 civilians have been killed in air strikes and fighting in the past 48 hours.
The SDF has been working to encircle Raqqa since November in an offensive backed by the US-led coalition.
The SDF control parts of northeastern Syria from the Iraqi border to the city of Manbij in Aleppo on the western banks of the Euphrates.
With additional reporting by Diana al Rifai: @D_R_23