The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in rural al-Raqa, and have succeeded in liberating a large number of villages and farms west of the city.
The Arab-Kurd opposition alliance has been ensuring the security of civilians in the areas slated for liberation and providing them with aid in safe areas until they can safely return to their homes after the battles end.
In a January 16th statement, the SDF said that during the second phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, it was able to liberate 2,480 square kilometres from ISIL in al-Raqa province.
This brings the total size of the liberated area to 3,200 square kilometres, including 236 villages and dozens of farms, encircling al-Raqa city from the north and west, the statement said.
To date, 620 ISIL fighters have been killed and 18 captured, and tens of thousands of residents have been liberated from the group and have returned to their homes, the statement said.
These gains cost the SDF 42 fighters in the battles, including one British national, one US national and one Canadian, the statement said.
"The second phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, which began on December 10th, is still ongoing," said Abdel Fattah Nasruddin, who commands an SDF fighting unit.
"The villages of Suweidiya and Widyan were recently liberated, and the forces are now moving towards the village of al-Turaykiyah and the Tabqa dam," he told Diyaruna.
The battles have become "more focused", he said, especially since January 11th.
At this time, "forces operating along two main axes, namely the Ayn Issa and al-Qadiriyah axes, met at the village of Kurmanjo", he said.
The forces coming from Ayn Issa advanced 34 kilometres, he said, and the forces coming from Qadiriyah advanced 57 kilometres, "thus putting a vast area under siege and within the gunfire range of the attacking forces".
"Sweep operations are ongoing in all the liberated areas to ensure they are free of ISIL elements, as are, of course, operations to clear the area of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)," he said.
Meanwhile, he said, the hideouts ISIL elements used to shelter from coalition airstrikes are being blown up.
SDF advances on Tabqa
"The coming days will see SDF advances towards the Tabqa area, after having captured the Jabar castle , with the aim of capturing the strategic Tabqa Dam," Nasruddin said.
This area is only 45 kilometres away from al-Raqa city, ISIL's stronghold, he said, adding that the Tabqa Dam includes a power plant that is of vital importance, as whoever controls it controls its electricity output.
The second phase of the operation to liberate al-Raqa is going well, SDF platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Diyaruna.
" Dozens of fighters from the province have joined the SDF , who are receiving tremendous support from the tribes in the region," he said.
"Dealing with civilians has become much easier owing to the absolute trust they place in the forces fighting ISIL," he added.
Most SDF troops fighting on the front line are al-Raqa natives, he added, noting that "morale among the troops is very high as a result of, on the one hand, the major practical results that have been achieved, and on the other, the moral support given by the residents".
ISIL infiltration attempts
"The threat in the liberated areas does not end with the departure of ISIL’s terrorist elements," said SDF mine clearing team member Sinan Qamishlo.
"It unfortunately remains, and claims the lives of innocent civilians," he told Diyaruna, adding that ISIL elements booby-trap houses and plant explosives on roads and farmlands, causing many civilian casualties.
"On January 18th, three children (aged 4, 8 and 13) were killed and two others were seriously injured in the village of Mahmoudli when a landmine exploded while they played near their house," he said.
"Such incidents rarely happen because engineering teams sweep the liberated areas for mines. But sometimes residents rush their return and injuries do occur."
Occasional ISIL infiltrations into the liberated areas pose an additional threat, he said, explaining that the group sends its fighters to kill civilians and members of the liberating forces and plant IEDs.
However, the widespread deployment of SDF fighters and tightened security and monitoring at guard posts thwart those infiltration attempts, he said, with troops engaging infiltrators in firefights.
"The largest foiled infiltration attempt occurred on the night of January 17th, and resulted in 15 terrorist elements killed," he said.
"The terrorists do not stop at trying to infiltrate on foot, as they sometimes try to do so in armoured vehicles that are dealt with -- blown up -- before they reach the troops stationed in the liberated areas," Qamishlo said.
An incident of this nature occurred on the night of January 13th near the village of Jabar, he said, when an armoured vehicle was destroyed and another was abandoned by militants who fled because of the heavy gunfire directed at them.