Originally published August 12, 2017 at 02:41a.m., updated August 12, 2017 at 02:41a.m.
BEIRUT -- U.S.-backed Syrian fighters advancing on the Islamic State extremist group from the eastern and western parts of the northern city of Raqqa have linked up for the first time since starting their offensive on the Islamic State's declared capital, officials said Friday.
Though the development marked a significant milestone in the battle for the Islamic State stronghold, a U.S. military spokesman cautioned that there is still tough fighting ahead before Raqqa is completely taken from the militants.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, under the cover of U.S.-backed coalition airstrikes, started a wide offensive to capture the city on June 6 and have managed so far to take about half the city.
The linkup of the eastern and western fronts deprives the Islamic State from access to the Euphrates River -- and effectively leaves the remaining militants in Raqqa and thousands of civilians surrounded.
U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon said tough fighting lies ahead and that although the linkup of the Syrian opposition fighters' east and west axis on the southern edge of Raqqa was significant, this does not in fact cut the city in two.
Dillon said in an email that the significance is that the Syrian Democratic Forces, despite the Islamic State's best efforts, have successfully battled across the entire city from both sides and have joined forces. The U.S. spokesman said this shows the steady progress the Syrian Democratic Forces fighters are making against the Islamic State in the militants' self-declared capital.
"The fighting is ongoing from room to room and from house to house," said Mustafa Bali, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces media center. Bali also confirmed that Syrian Democratic Forces fighters pushing from opposite sides of the city have met up.
Bali said by telephone from northern Syria that the key difficulty facing advancing Syrian Democratic Forces fighters is to avoid striking civilians used by the Islamic State as human shields.
The top U.S. envoy for the international coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, tweeted about the linkup of the two fronts, describing it as a "milestone" that is tightening the noose around the militants.
Also Friday, neighboring Turkey introduced new regulations at a border crossing with northwestern Syria, allowing only the transport of humanitarian aid, after an al-Qaida-linked group took control of the Syrian post.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after Friday prayers in Istanbul that the Cilvegozu crossing in southern Turkey would remain open for the transport of food, medicine and some supplies. Turkey's Cilvegozu stands across from the Bab al-Hawa in Syria's Idlib province.
The al-Qaida-linked militant group Levant Liberation Committee captured the crossing last month after battles with the ultraconservative Syrian rebel Ahrar al-Sham group.
Erdogan said Turkey "cannot allow the passage of weapons," suggesting humanitarian aid has "practically turned into an armament process."
Meanwhile, the U.N. migration agency said Friday that over 600,000 displaced Syrians have returned to their homes this year, citing an increasing trend of returns while warning the situation remains "not sustainable."
International Organization for Migration spokesman Olivia Headon said the 602,759 returns between January and July were on track to surpass the figure of 685,000 returns for all of 2016.
But she also urged caution in making too much of that figure, citing a relatively large number of displaced Syrians this year -- nearly 809,000.
The U.N. migration agency said its partner agencies have found that two-thirds of the returnees have gone to the northern Aleppo province, where government forces ousted rebels from the city of Aleppo last year.
A third of the returnees said they went back to "protect their assets" while one-quarter cited "improved economic conditions," the migration agency said.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeynep Bilginsoy of The Associated Press.
A Section on 08/12/2017
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