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U.S.-backed fighters battle ISIS around north Syria town

BEIRUT, Lebanon (UPDATED) – US-backed forces battled the Islamic State group around a key Syrian town Monday, March 27, hours after the capture of an airbase brought them closer to besieging the jihadists in their stronghold Raqa.

Backed by air power from the US-led coalition that has been bombing ISIS since 2014, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are laying the groundwork for an assault on the heart of the jihadists’ so-called "caliphate."

Operations are currently focused on the strategically important town of Tabqa on the Euphrates River, and the adjacent dam and military airport.

Late Sunday, Arab and Kurdish fighters from the SDF seized Tabqa airbase and pressed north towards the town itself.

"There is fighting north of the airport as the SDF tries to reinforce its positions there," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, on Monday.

"The SDF could bring supplies to the airport in the coming days and use it as a launching point for additional military operations," Abdel Rahman told Agence France-Presse, saying there were "heavy air strikes" in the area.

The base is approximately 2.7 kilometers (less than two miles) south of Tabqa.

SDF spokesman Talal Sello told Agence France-Presse that the alliance would "begin rehabilitating the airport after clearing out explosive devices" left behind by ISIS and said the base’s main landing strip had been seriously damaged.

Fighting near dam

Bolstered by air strikes and military advisers from the US-led coalition, SDF units are approaching Tabqa from the south via the airport and the north near the dam.

Abdel Rahman said the SDF was locked in fierce clashes on Monday near the northeastern entrance of the dam.

The ISIS-held structure was forced out of service on Sunday after its power station was damaged, a source there told Agence France-Presse.

The UN has warned that damage to the dam "could lead to massive scale flooding across Raqa and as far away as Deir Ezzor" province downstream to the southeast.

Sello told Agence France-Presse that the SDF is seeking to seize the dam "in order to complete the siege of Raqa."

ISIS issued warnings through its propaganda agency Amaq that the dam "is threatened with collapse at any moment because of American strikes and a large rise in water levels".

In a statement published late Sunday, the SDF denied the coalition had targeted the dam and said military operations around it were being conducted "slowly and with precision".

The SDF launched its offensive for Raqa city in November, seizing around two thirds of the surrounding province, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

At their closest point, they are just eight kilometers (five miles) from the city, to the northeast.

But they are mostly further away, between 18 and 29 kilometers from Raqa.

Rebels quit Homs district

Syria’s conflict began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 but has since morphed into a brutal war pitting government forces, jihadists, rebels, and Kurds against each other.

In addition to the US-led coalition’s bombing campaign, Russian warplanes are carrying out air strikes in support of Assad’s government.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham told Agence France-Presse it shot down a "Russian helicopter" over a government-held town in the northwest province of Latakia.

The Observatory confirmed the group had hit the helicopter and said the craft landed in regime territory.

Russia’s air support has helped Syrian government forces regain the upper hand in swathes of territory across the country.

Assad’s government has also relied on "reconciliation" deals, under which rebels agree to quit territory in exchange for an end to siege or bombardment, and safe passage.

On Monday, evacuations from the last opposition-held district of the central city of Homs resumed under a similar deal, according to state news agency SANA.

It said about 290 people, including 70 rebels, had quit Waer on Monday and that a total of 1,500 were expected to be bussed out by the end of the day.

UN-mediated talks between government and rebel representatives continued Monday in Geneva aimed a bringing an end to the war that has killed 320,000 people. –