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US-backed Syrian rebels within five kilometres of IS stronghold

Kurdish and Arab-backed Syrian Democratic Forces launched the assault to cut off flow of foreign fighters last week
A fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the village of Fatisah (AFP)

US-backed Syrian rebels advancing on Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the strategic northern town of Manbij have progressed to within five kilometres of the IS bastion, a monitor said on Sunday.

Supported by air strikes by the US-led coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias launched an assault last week on Manbij.

On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF was within five kilometres of Manbij,  located along a route connecting Raqqa - IS's de facto Syrian capital - to the Turkish border, a vital conduit for supplies and foreign fighters.

Last week, sources told Middle East Eye contributor Wladimir van Wilgenburg that the town could fall as early as this week.

US Central Command spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder said on Saturday that SDF fighters had seized more than 100 square kilometres of territory during the advance.

More than 55 air strikes have been carried out since the offensive began last week, he said, adding that the goal was to hamper IS's ability "to move fighters, weapons, finances [and] supplies into and out of Syria and Iraq".

Some 3,000 Arab fighters were taking part in the offensive, backed by around 500 Kurdish militia members, he said, adding that US special forces were working "at the command and control level" in the operation.

On Friday, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) – a faction of the SDF – announced they had freed a Yazidi family held captive by IS in a detention centre in Raqqa.

“They have been moved to a safe location in Rojava,” the YPG said in a statement, referring to the Kurdish-held region in northern Syria.

Russian-backed Syrian troops are also advancing against IS in Raqqa, and on Saturday, pushed into the province from the southwest, moving to within 40 kilometres of the Euphrates Valley town of Tabqa, site of the country's biggest dam.

According to the pro-government al-Masdar News, the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Mechanised Division, backed up by the Desert Hawks, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, National Defence Forces, and Syrian Marines retook the hilltop of Tal SyriaTel alongside the Salamiyah-Raqqa highway on Saturday.