Battle for IS 'Capital' Raqqa Begins

The fight to recapture the ISIS stronghold is expected to last months and to be extremely hard in nature as the war-torn country attempts to wrestle away the vital grounds.

"We have there assisting in this battle Marine M777 howitzers, which are providing a significant enabling capability to our special operations forces and partners on the ground", Davis said, adding that USA attack helicopters, AH-64 Apaches, are also being used.

"We declare today the start of the great battle to liberate the city of Raqqa, the so-called capital of terrorism and terrorists", SDF spokesman Talal Sello told reporters in the village of Hazima, north of the city. The U.S. -led coalition said the fight for Raqqa would be "long and difficult" but would deliver a "decisive blow to the idea of ISIS as a physical caliphate", using an alternative acronym for the terrorist group. Though the YPG has been effective fighting smaller ISIS targets, Raqqa will be a huge test for them. Syrian fighters have been inching toward the gates of Raqqa from different directions since November of previous year, only now reading themselves to overtake the city as a whole.

The SDF spokesman said the assault had begun from the north, east and west of the city, which is bordered to the south by the Euphrates River. "ISIS threatens all of our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our own homelands as well".

Seized by the jihadists in early 2014, Raqa became notorious as a hub for IS's operations in Syria, Iraq and beyond.

Raqqa is the remaining stronghold of the terror group's so-called caliphate.

"We call on our family in Raqqa city to stay away from the enemy's centers and the clashes", said the SDF's statement on Tuesday.

Raqqa was one of the first cities taken by Islamic State in January 2014 during a lightning offensive in which vast swaths of Iraq and Syria were captured.

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The US-led coalition has said 3,000 to 4,000 IS fighters are thought to be holed up in Raqqa city, where they have erected defenses against the anticipated assault.

His soldiers on Tuesday were around 70 kilometres (40 miles) from Raqa city, into which the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces thrusted earlier in the day.

"We did not forget the SDF support".

The sources said that Kurdish forces will advance much more slowly in the densely populated urban areas, compared to progress registered since last November and carried out in scarcely populated rural areas. The fighting has devastated communities in both countries and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. The Raqqa campaign has "resulted in massive civilian casualties, displacement and serious infrastructure destruction" so far, it said in a May report.

In the western Raqqa valley, Davis said, the SDF is isolating and clearing supply routes.

The fighting is expected to be hard, Davis said, noting that civilians are trapped in the city and the terrorists are targeting those who are fleeing. It is estimated that there are about half a million civilians in Raqqa about 80,000 displaced from other areas.

The Syrian war began in March 2011 with widespread protests against the regime, but it has since morphed into a multi-front war that has left over 400,000 people dead.

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