Russian special forces help Syrian troops in battle for Deir el-Zour
Russian special forces are helping Syrian government troops fight Islamic State militants in the battle for the strategic city of Deir el-Zour.
The campaign for Syria's largest eastern city is caught up in a race between government troops and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
In the past two weeks, the pro-government forces, backed by Russian air cover and Iranian-allied militiamen, gained control of most of the city and crossed the Euphrates River to the area of SDF operations.
A Russian defence ministry spokesman said that Russian special forces have been deployed to help Syrian government forces fighting the IS militants outside the city.
He also said a Syrian government offensive late on Wednesday captured two villages on the Euphrates's western bank.
He said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) shelled government positions outside Deir el-Zour twice in recent days and warned the US-led coalition that Moscow would have to retaliate if the Russian troops in the area were to come under fire.
The development comes as the battle for the IS stronghold of Raqqa, north of Deir el-Zour, is reaching its "final stages", the SDF said on Wednesday, four months after the offensive began.
The Kurdish-led SDF said it captured Raqqa's last grain silos from the militants in a surprise offensive on the city's northern neighbourhoods.
Less than 300 militants remain holed up in the city, which has witnessed an intense bombing campaign, particularly in the last few days, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that monitors the war.
The campaign to take Raqqa began in June in a quick advance after a breach of the wall of the Old City, a major fortification for the militants, but it has since slowed down as the forces faced mounting resistance from the militants.
The Russian defense ministry spokesman claimed on Thursday that its intelligence shows the coalition's operation in Raqqa had stopped, and that SDF fighters have been redeployed from there to Deir el-Zour.