The Syrian Democratic Forces said Monday they had seized a new neighborhood from ISIS in the militant stronghold of Raqqa where the terrorist group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is allegedly located.
The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters backed by the US, have been pressing an operation to capture northern Syria’s Raqqa since last year, and entered the city in June.
“The Al-Yarmuk district was liberated yesterday,” the SDF’s spokeswoman for the Raqqa operation Jihan Sheikh Ahmed told Agence France Presse.
Al-Yarmuk is a large neighbourhood on the southwestern outskirts of the city.
“The operation is continuing but there are many fierce clashes,” Ahmed said, speaking in the town of Ain Issa, some 50 kilometers north of Raqqa.
“We are taking steady and sound steps. What is important to us is not speed, but liberating civilians and eliminating ISIS,” she added.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF had advanced in Al-Yarmuk but did not yet fully control the district.
The monitor said the militia held the western portion of the district but that heavy fighting was continuing.
It also reported that hundreds of civilians had fled ISIS-held parts of the city towards areas now controlled by the SDF in the last 48 hours.
The monitor estimates the US-backed force currently holds around 35 percent of the city.
The SDF began an operation to capture Raqqa in November 2016 and spent months taking territory around the city before finally entering it in June.
It has been backed by heavy US-led coalition air strikes, including on Monday, which killed at least three civilians, according to the Observatory.
Following reports that Baghdadi had been killed, top Kurdish counter-terrorism official Lahur Talabany told Reuters in Iraq that he was 99 percent sure that the ISIS leader was alive and located south of Raqqa.
“Baghdadi is definitely alive. He is not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent he is alive,” Lahur Talabany said.
“Don’t forget his roots go back to al-Qaeda days in Iraq. He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing.”