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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Report: Raqqa Completely Encircled by US-backed Forces

By VOA News June 29, 2017

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have fully encircled Raqqa, which serves as the de-facto capital of the Islamic State group in Syria, cutting off the jihadist group's last route out of the city, according to a monitoring group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday that SDF forces captured two villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River, effectively cutting off the last IS escape route.

"They thereby cut the last route IS used to withdraw from Raqqa towards territory it controls in the Syrian desert and in Deir Ezzor province," the Observatory said.

A spokesman for the U.S. mission to defeat IS said on Twitter the SDF had this week cleared nearly 20 square kilometers of territory once held by IS jihadists, and that the SDF "now control all high-speed avenues of approach" into Raqqa.

"[IS] fighters, abandoned by their leadership, are being pressured by the [SDF] from multiple axes around the city," he wrote.

The SDF, backed by U.S. airstrikes, has been battling the Islamic State fighters along the outskirts of Raqqa for several months. It first entered the city in early June and has since captured districts throughout the city.

IS jihadists took control of Raqqa in 2014, claiming it as the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The city became notorious as the site of some of the extremist group's most heinous atrocities, including public beheadings, and also is believed to have been a hub for planning international attacks.

United Nations estimates say that up to 100,000 civilians are still trapped in the city. Islamic State uses civilians as human shields, and kills those trying to escape.

In New York, U.N. Humanitarian Chief Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council that reports from inside Raqqa are "extremely dire" and that the remaining civilians have "limited access to food, water and basic services."

O'Brien said residents fleeing the city face personal danger, including retaliation from Islamic State fighters, threats from land mines, and forced recruitment, including of children, at checkpoints.

"People are terrified and they do not know where to go for safety," O'Brien said. "We must do more to see civilians caught up in this fight protected."

Many civilians are heading north as they leave the city, toward the Turkish border, where there are U.N.-supported transit sites inside Syria. From there, most find shelter with relatives or friends in safer areas of Syria.

VOA's Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

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