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Turkey and rebel allies claim control of Syria's al-Bab

Rebel units and Turkish government say IS kicked out of centre of town, amid counter-claims group is still in control
Turkish soldiers stand in a Turkish army tank near the Syrian-Turkish border in September 2016 (AFP)

Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies claim to have taken the centre of al-Bab from the Islamic State group, a key target in Ankara's drive to wipe out the militant group in northern Syria.

Turkey's defence minister, Fikri Isik, said on Thursday that almost all of the town was now under the control of Turkish troops and their allies.

"Today we can say that near complete control has been taken of al-Bab and the city centre has been entered," he said.

Ahmad Othman, a rebel commander, told Anadolu: "We are announcing al-Bab completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential areas.

"After hours of fighting, we chased out the last remaining IS rank and file that were collapsing after the fierce shelling of their positions," he added. 

Zakaria Malahifji, of the rebel faction Fastaqim, echoed their comments, but told Reuters there were pockets of IS militants still fighting.

"There has been cleaning up of the last remaining areas under (IS) control, and there were street battles," he said, while a second rebel fighter told the news agency the centre was under their control.

Turkey launched its Syrian operation, dubbed "Operation Euphrates Shield", in August, in effort to push IS from its border and stop the advance of a Syrian Kurdish militia groups.

Backed by Turkish jets, tanks and special forces, the Free Syrian Army fighters first cleared IS from Turkey's border before launching an assault on al-Bab in December.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the shelling of the city, according to monitors.

A total of 1,900sq km in northern Syria has now been cleared of militant groups, Anadolu said.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said that more than half of al-Bab was still under IS control, and that battles continued.

While Euphrates Shield has been largely focused so far on combatting the Islamic State, Ankara is also determined to prevent the Kurdish YPG militia, which it considers a terrorist group, from linking the cantons it controls along the Turkish border.

Turkey fears that advances by the YPG risk inflaming a Kurdish insurgency at home.