Backed by Turkey, Syria rebels advance on ISIS bastion Al-Bab
BEIRUT - Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces are two kilometres (just over a mile) from the Islamic State group stronghold of Al-Bab as they press Ankara's Operation Euphrates Shield, a monitor said Sunday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish forces were targeting the town with artillery fire and air strikes but it had no immediate word on casualties.
Al-Bab, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Turkish border, has been a key target for Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies since its campaign began on August 24.
"Opposition factions backed by Turkish troops are two kilometres north and northwest of the town of Al-Bab," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Observatory.
"This progress is a continuation of the campaign that began with the capture of Jarablus and has seen the jihadists expelled from an area of 2,500 square kilometres along the border with Turkey," Abdel Rahman said.
Ankara launched its unprecedented cross-border operation saying it was targeting both IS but also the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, which has been a key opponent of the jihadist group.
Turkey considers the YPG a "terrorist" organisation, and wants to avoid the creation of a contiguous, semi-autonomous Kurdish zone along the Syrian border.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Ankara wants to capture Al-Bab from ISIS and then push Kurdish-led forces from the nearby town of Manbij.
Abdel Rahman said ISIS forces in Al-Bab were almost surrounded.
"The only route left open is the road to Raqa that runs southeast from Al-Bab through the (jihadist-held) town of Deir Hafer," he said.
"The rebel forces are advancing because of the support from the Turkish forces and ISIS has withdrawn from several areas without putting up a fight," he added.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are currently fighting an operation to capture Raqa, ISIS's Syrian stronghold, with support from the US-led coalition against the jihadist group.
Washington's cooperation with Syrian Kurdish forces has angered Ankara, and Erdogan has said his troops and allied rebels intend to target Raqa themselves.