BEIRUT (AP) - U.S. -backed Kurdish-led Syrian fighters are clashing with Islamic State militants north of Raqqa in Syria, a day after announcing the start of a campaign to liberate the city from the extremist group.
"We still can't go out of our houses. mortars are falling continuously on the quarter", a resident of the Quds neighbourhood on the eastern edge of the city told Reuters by telephone.
Washington says the battle for Raqqa will "overlap" with the assault on Mosul, in part because of concerns that any delay would allow Islamic State to use it as a base to launch attacks on targets overseas.
Later the powerful Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) denied an IS report that 14 of its fighters were killed in a vehicle bomb attack the Suluk area.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor reported only wounded in that attack.
Turkey's defense minister suggested last week that instead of the Kurds, Turkish-backed forces can present an "alternative".
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Ankara considers the militia a "terrorist" group, and in August began its own operation inside northern Syria, targeting both IS and the YPG. In a rare audio recording released Thursday, the Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, urged militants to fight to the death in Mosul. "We always advertised that the isolation phase is going to take months", he said. But he predicted the battle to drive Daesh from their Raqqa, their main stronghold in Syria, would "not be easy".
Turkey is actively hostile to the SDF because the YPG/J making up the bulk of its forces constitute the military arm of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD).
On Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Turkey's opposition to the use of Syrian Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State group. They returned from Moscow reportedly claiming that they had received its blessing, if only to advance closer to al-Bab if not to actually take it, which would be a very bloody affair anyway because IS is expected to put up a big fight.
"The Kurdish participation is problematic", as the BBC's Mark Lowen reports, because "Kurdish fighters are accused of expelling Arabs from areas they've taken in the north and Raqqa has an overwhelming Arab majority".
So far, Turkey has not directly participated in the SDF battles to capture Raqqa.
Turkey views the PYD as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its southeast, and often speaks of the PYD and IS as similar threats.
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That might explain the surprise visit of US General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to his Turkish counterpart.
Some 50 United States military advisers are involved in the Raqa operation, particularly to guide air strikes, according to an SDF source. Backed by U.S.ai.
In Bashiqa, about 10 miles north of Mosul, the first waves of a 2,000-strong peshmerga force entered the town on foot and in armoured vehicles or Humvees. In light of this tense situation an SDF offensive against Raqqa could be potentially a setback or fatally compromised if a full-fledged conflict breaks out between Turkey and the SDF/YPG in northwest Syria in the near future.
"It should be the rebels, backed by Turkey and the US-led coalition, that liberate Raqa", said Ahmed Ramadan, a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition. "We have also made clear that eliminating the PYD from Manbij one way or another is among our strategic priorities, and that Turkey has accomplished its preparations on Manbij", he added.
On Monday, Amnesty International said that Iraqi Kurdish forces have driven out hundreds of Arabs from Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, and destroyed their homes, apparently in retaliation for an attack by IS on October 21.
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