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US-backed forces in new push against IS in Raqa

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A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces looks at a damaged bridge in eastern Raqa on Friday during an offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State group.

AFP, Raqa :
US-backed forces captured a new district from jihadists in Syria's Raqa but struggled to hold their positions against suicide car bombers, a fighter in the city and a monitor said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, seized the eastern Batani district from the Islamic State group on Thursday.
"Late Thursday, they began an offensive on neighbouring Al-Rumeilah," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Clashes were raging on Friday as IS deployed its typical defensive tactics: weaponised drones, snipers, and improvised explosive devices, Abdel Rahman told AFP.
An SDF fighter near Al-Rumeilah told AFP on Thursday that suicide attackers were using explosives-laden vehicles to hold back the SDF. "They're sending booby-trapped cars towards our positions, and as they fall back, they're laying mines," said the 30-year-old fighter, who identified himself as Abu.
Civilians "can't move. They can't leave during the day because of snipers."
Abu said his unit had managed to open up an escape route for residents of Al-Rumeilah, like 56-year-old Abdel Halim Ulaywi.
"Ten days ago, a strike hit our home and we ran inside quickly. My sister was hit in the stomach and started bleeding. She stayed alive for six days and then she died," Ulaywi said.
He had tried to escape several times "but IS kept forcing us back," he told AFP.
According to Abdel Rahman, IS has slowed down the SDF's push in other parts of Raqa, including the Old City.
"The SDF is struggling to hold newly seized positions in the Old City because of intense sniping and escalating attacks by drones carrying bombs," he said.
IS captured Raqa in early 2014, transforming the northern Syrian city into the scene of gruesome atrocities like public beheadings.
The SDF, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, spent months encircling the city before finally breaking into it on June 6.
The militia has since captured around 30 percent of the city, according to the British-based Observatory.
Meanwhile, Russia has said it is willing to deploy monitors to prevent any violations of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria by Syrian government forces, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.
Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy for the coalition against Islamic State, said the United States was "very encouraged" by the progress since the ceasefire arranged by the United States, Russia and Jordan took effect on Sunday.
"The Russians have made clear they're very serious about this and willing to put some of their people on the ground to help monitor from the regime side," McGurk told reporters. "They do not want the regime violating the ceasefire."
Russia is the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias have helped put mostly Sunni rebels at a disadvantage over the past year.
The wide array of rebels fighting Assad since 2011 includes jihadist factions and other groups supported by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies.
The "de-escalation agreement" for southwestern Syria was announced after a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany on Friday.
Trump, in a news conference in Paris on Thursday, said work was under way to negotiate a ceasefire in a second region of Syria.
"I think the president is referring to a very constructive discussion that he had with the Russians in building from this southwest agreement," McGurk said when asked about Turmp's remark.
The United States has had "very constructive ... military-to-military discussions with the Russians about deconfliction arrangements" in recent weeks and is keen to explore the possibility of ceasefires in other areas, he said.
McGurk said the United States, Russia and Jordan had conducted extensive discussions to agree on a detailed line of contact as a basis for the southwestern ceasefire, and were now looking at where monitors could be placed.
"That discussion is very much ongoing, and I'm hopeful over the next week or so it can get somewhere," he said.
Earlier on Thursday at a meeting of the anti-IS coalition in Washington, McGurk said Washington had pledged an additional $119 million for humanitarian aid in Iraq following the recapture of Mosul from Islamic State this month.
He urged efforts and funds to stabilize areas of Iraq and Syria where allied forces had defeated the militants.
"We have identified 100 critical stabilization sites in and around Mosul which will be the immediate focus for de-mining and restoration," McGurk said at the beginning of Thursday meeting.
Iraqi forces clashed with Islamic State fighters holding out in Mosul's Old City on Wednesday, more than 36 hours after Baghdad announced victory over the jihadists in what the militant group had declared the de facto Iraqi capital of its "caliphate."
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's victory announcement signaled the biggest defeat for the hard-line Sunni group since its lightning sweep through northern Iraq three years ago. But pockets of Mosul remain insecure and the city has been heavily damaged by nearly nine months of grueling urban combat.

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