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US-backed fighters reach Islamic-State-held dam in Syria

US-backed Syrian fighters have reached a major dam held by the Islamic State group in the north of Syria, according to officials.

Cihan Sheikh Ehmed, spokeswoman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the fighting was continuing at the entrance of the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates river, adding that there are casualties among IS fighters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters were moving slowly towards the dam because of mines and explosives planted by IS.

The push comes three days after US aircraft ferried Syrian Kurdish fighters and allies behind IS lines to spearhead a major ground assault on the IS-held town of Tabqa, where the dam is located, west of Raqqa.

US-backed fighters are also pushing to capture a major village east of Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS.

The Kurdish-led SDF has been on the offensive since November, aiming to surround the city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters have been marching under air strikes and artillery cover from the US-led coalition, and are inside the village of Karama.

Mohammed Khedhr, of Sound and Picture Organisation, which documents IS violations, confirmed that battles are taking place inside Karama, about 10 miles east of Raqqa.

France's defence minister said the battle for Raqqa itself will start in the coming days.

Jean-Yves Le Drian said Raqqa is a "major objective" for the US-led coalition, adding: "Today we can say that Raqqa is encircled and that the battle will begin in the coming days. It will be a very hard battle but it will be an essential battle."

Syria's UN ambassador said hundreds of US personnel are "invading my country" and insisted any effort to liberate the city should be done in co-ordination with the Damascus government.

Bashar al-Ja'afari also insisted that "American warplanes" had bombed a school in the village of Mansourah, west of Raqqa, a day earlier and were responsible for the deaths of 237 civilians among 500 people fleeing the city.

The US has deployed more than 700 advisers, Marines and Rangers to Syria to support fighters battling IS.

Mr al-Ja'afari was s peaking at the start of a new round of UN-mediated peace talks.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura hosted Mr al-Ja'afari at UN offices in Geneva for the talks set to take place over at least several days around issues of governance, elections, a new constitution and the fight against terrorism.

AP

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