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Syria Kurds seize key base from IS in new blow

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Syrian Kurdish fighters and rebel allies overnight seized a key base held by the Islamic State group north of its Raqa stronghold, in a new blow for the jihadists.

The capture of the Brigade 93 base comes just a week after IS was expelled from Tal Abyad, a town on the border with Turkey that served as a important conduit for the extremist group.

Syrian Kurdish forces and Arab fighters seized the base in Raqa province with backing from the US-led coalition fighting IS, which launched a series of air strikes overnight.

“We have complete control over Brigade 93 and are currently sweeping it for explosives,” Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) told AFP on Tuesday.

The base near the town of Ain Issa is about 55 kilometres (35 miles) north of Raqa, the de facto capital of IS’s self-declared Islamic “caliphate” in territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.

Khalil said fighting was ongoing for control of Ain Issa, with YPG and allied Syrian rebel forces hoping to seize it from IS forces.

“It is our next target because we want to secure the region and Ain Issa is very close to the Brigade 93 base and also the main road that runs through the area.”

Ain Issa and Brigade 93 both lie on a key highway that runs between Kurdish-held territory in Aleppo province and Hasakeh province, to the west and east respectively of Raqa province.

The same route also links territory held by the Islamic State group in Aleppo and Hasakeh provinces.

– IS ‘pushed back’ –

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the capture of the base, and the advance of the anti-IS forces on Ain Issa, adding that at least 26 IS fighters were killed in US-led air strikes in the area on Monday.

“The Kurdish forces and the rebels have control of the west and southwestern parts of the town, but fighting is ongoing elsewhere inside,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

“IS’s defence lines have now been pushed back to the outskirts of Raqa city because the area between Raqa and Ain Issa is militarily weak and they have no fortifications in that area, which is mostly open plains,” he added.

The advance is the latest success for YPG forces and their rebel allies, backed by US-led air power.

On June 16, they captured Tal Abyad, on the Turkish border, which had been held by IS for a year, depriving the group of a key conduit through which it brought in fighters and weapons and exported black market oil.

Kurdish forces have been chipping away at IS territory in the northern Raqa province for months, after successfully repelling an attack by the jihadists on the border town of Kobane in January.

The YPG has emerged as “arguably the most effective fighting force against IS in Syria,” analyst Sirwan Kajjo said after the capture of Tal Abyad.

“They are well-organised, disciplined and are big believers in their cause.”

– IS destroys mausoleums –

Khalil said the Kurdish-rebel force had “excellent” coordination with the US-led coalition fighting IS, but repeated a longstanding Syrian Kurdish call for better weapons to take on the jihadists.

He declined to comment on where the anti-IS coalition would focus their attentions next, but suggested an operation against Raqa was unlikely in the short-term.

“Raqa is much further away, and well-defended, it would require significant forces and weapons,” he said.

Elsewhere, Syria’s antiquities chief on Tuesday confirmed IS had destroyed two ancient religious mausoleums in the old city of Palmyra.

Maamoun Abdulkarim said the extremists had blown up the tombs of Mohamed bin Ali and Nizar Abu Bahaaeddine, two Muslim figures.

The jihadists consider tombstones and mausoleums to be a violation of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and has regularly destroyed both on territory it controls.

Meanwhile in Israel, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon pledged to track down Druze rioters responsible for “lynching” a wounded Syrian who died after being dragged from an Israeli ambulance and beaten.

The incident comes as Druze in Israel raise concerns about the fate of the community in Syria after advances by rebels on majority-Druze areas and an incident in which Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate shot at least 20 members of the community.

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