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US air strikes pound Raqqa and Fallujah as anti-IS ground offensive kicks off

Coalition officials say air raids will 'soften' Islamic State as ground battles commence, amid fresh reports of trapped civilians
Iraqi government forces advance north-east of Fallujah, as they take part in a major assault to retake the city from the Islamic State (IS) group. (AFP)

The US-led coalition has carried out at least 150 air attacks on the Islamic State (IS) to back an offensive near the group's northern Syria stronghold, a monitor said Friday.

The coalition, as well as US special forces, is supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they advance in the northern province of Raqqa.

The strikes are part of a twin assault on Raqqa in Syria and Fallujah in Iraq, as ground forces kick off the most significant assaults against IS since it declared a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria in 2014.

For the second time this week coalition warplanes dropped leaflets encouraging residents to flee Raqqon Friday morningas the UN Syria envoy said trapped civilians in besieged areas risk starvation unless Damascus and rebel groups allow greater access to humanitarian aid convoys.

The UN Security Council is set to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria and the possibility of parachuting aid into besieged cities.

Western boots on the ground

On Thursday Middle East Eye reported that US special forces had been seen providing targeting assistance and artillery fire in support of the Kurdish-led SDF in its operation to clear the countryside of northern Raqqa.

There is a clear coalition presence on the ground here, as opposed to last year, when Western soldiers were nowhere to be seen.

British, US and French special forces are assisting the SDF on the ground in an operation which on Thursday had advanced 6km and aims to dislodge IS from its northeast Syrian bastion.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 150 strikes had targeted IS positions around the flashpoint towns of Tal Abyad and Ain al-Issa in Syria since the push was launched on Tuesday.

By Friday afternoon SDF forces had pushed forward from Ain Issa, less than 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Raqqa city, into the surrounding farmland and small villages. The fighting and bombardment has left 31 IS fighters dead so far, Abdel Rahman said. The number of SDF casualties was unclear.

“There are definitely casualties among the SDF's ranks but they are not releasing any figures,” he said.

“There are almost no civilians in the villages where the fighting is happening, which is why there is no civilian death toll,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Persecuting the air war

Dispatching air support well ahead of a ground fight has been a critical manoeuvre in advancing the air war against the Islamic State group, a senior US military official said Thursday.

Lieutenant General Charles Brown, the head of the air war against the Islamic State group, told the Air Force Times: “If I know where the next fight’s going to be, then what I want to be able to do is actually soften up that with strikes.

"And we found that if we do that, the resistance that the ground forces face seems to be less for a number of reasons,” he said.

IS, which has tightened restrictions on movement, has been accused of using residents as human shields and has reportedly set up new checkpoints in Raqqa city, where an estimated  300,000 people still live and are becoming increasingly desperate to flee.

Abu Mohammed, founder of the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said residents were paying smugglers $400 each to try to flee the city, while the SDF has warned that IS is using civilians as “human shields”.

US military officials also said there had been increased air attacks in Fallujah in the last week, claiming positive momentum to reclaim the last remaining IS stronghold in Iraq’s Anbar province.

Earlier this week US F-16s and F-22 jets, operating alongside British Typhoon jets, provided ground support, destroying a weapons cache and a mortar team, according to a statement from US Central Command.

This comes as the UK defence secretary announced the deployment of a second Royal Air Force spy plane to operate over Iraq and Syria.

The air strikes in Iraq come after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared on Sunday the start of an offensive to retake the city, which lies only half an hour’s drive west of Baghdad.

Since he announced the offensive, Iraqi troops backed by pro-government militias have been advancing towards the city from surrounding areas. On Friday hundreds of people fled the Fallujah area with the help of Iraqi forces who are fighting to retake the city.

Civilians flee Fallujah, again

But few of the estimated tens of thousands of civilians inside the city have managed to escape. "Our forces evacuated 460 people... most of them women and children," said police Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat.

"Hundreds of families from the people of Fallujah have been able to leave," said Raja Barakat, a member of the security committee for Anbar province, where Fallujah is located.

Umm Omar, who was accompanied by more than 10 members of her family, said they were trapped in the Al-Sijr area on the northern outskirts of the city.

IS prevented them from leaving, and "gave us food that only animals would eat," Umm Omar said.

An official from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said that most families who have managed to escape "were displaced from areas around Fallujah... and a few were displaced from inside the city."

The NRC said in a statement earlier in the day that of the 150 families it knew of that had escaped, all but one were from the outskirts of the city.

"The situation inside Fallujah is getting critical by the day," said Nasr Muflahi, NRC's Iraq director.

"We are now hearing reports of contaminated water being used for drinking, while entire neighbourhoods are being displaced within the battle zone with no safe way out," Muflahi said.

IS executing civilians

In Iraq, pro-government forces have advanced towards bridges leading to IS-held Fallujah, said Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, head of the Fallujah Liberation Operations Command.

IS fighters were using "car bomb and suicide (bombers) and sniper detachments" to resist the advance.

About 50,000 civilians are estimated to be trapped inside the city, and only 800 had been able to escape, according to the UN's refugee agency.

Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the UN had received reports that people including women and children had been killed trying to flee.

"There have been reports of a dramatic increase in the number of executions of men and older boys in Fallujah refusing to fight on behalf of extremist forces," Fleming said.

She described "harrowing tales" of families trekking for hours through the night on foot, sometimes hiding in old irrigation pipes, to reach safety.

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