Syrian troops reach Raqqa province with IS fighting on four fronts
Syrian troops reached the edge of the northern province of Raqqa on Saturday, home to the de facto capital of the Islamic State group's self-styled caliphate.
The Syrians' push leaves the extremists fighting fierce battles on four fronts in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
IS, which controls large swathes of territory in both countries, is fighting Syrian troops, US-backed fighters and opposition militants in northern Syria and is facing an offensive by Iraqi government forces on their stronghold of Fallujah.
The Syrian government has had no presence in Raqqa since August 2014, when IS captured the Tabqa air base and killed scores of government soldiers. The provincial capital, Raqqa, became the militants' first city.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops reached the "administrative border" of Raqqa province under the cover of Russian air strikes.
It said that during three days of fighting 26 IS fighters and nine troops and pro-government gunmen were killed.
The media arm of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, which is fighting alongside government forces, said Syrian troops reached the border of Raqqa province after advancing about 6km (four miles) on Saturday afternoon.
The front line is around 80km (50 miles) from the city of Raqqa.
Syrian troops began their advance toward the province on Wednesday, the same day that US-backed forces launched an attack on the IS-stronghold of Manbij, some 115km (72 miles) to the north west of Raqqa. It is unclear if the attacks were coordinated.
The US-backed predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces advanced closer to Manbij, which lies on a key supply route linking the Turkish border to the city of Raqqa, on Saturday.
The observatory said SDF fighters captured 34 villages near Manbij. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said the fighting is now concentrated on the south of the town.
IS fighters are also engaged in fierce battles for the rebel-held stronghold of Marea, a town some 70km west of Manbij. IS surrounded Marea on three sides but has failed to capture the city, which is under control of rebels and fighters from the al Qaida affiliated Nusra Front.
"The fighting is very intense on three fronts in Marea," said opposition activist Baraa al-Halaby.
While battles rage in Raqqa province, Manbij and Marea, IS fighters are coming under fire in their Iraqi stronghold of Fallujah. Iraqi forces launched their offensive on the city almost two weeks ago, and say they have reached the edge of town.
On the city's northern edge, Iraq's military issued a statement announcing that IS had been pushed out of the neighbourhood of Saqlawiya on Saturday. The statement also said an Iraqi flag was raised above the area.
However, the main push into the city centre has been slow. Heavy IS counter-attacks and concerns for the tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside the city slowed Iraq's elite counter-terrorism troops, who are leading the push, according to Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi.
Meanwhile, violence in and around the contested northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and once commercial centre, claimed more lives.
The city has been the scene of fierce fighting, even during a truce brokered by the US and Russia that went into effect in late February and collapsed weeks later.
The Russian military's Reconciliation Centre in Syria said the Nusra Front heavily shelled several government-held neighbourhoods of the city.
The shelling of government-held parts of contested Aleppo killed 22 and wounded 23 people, while opposition activists said dozens were killed or wounded in rebel-held neighbourhoods.
Intense fighting also took place south of Aleppo, where insurgents led by the Nusra Front attacked the Syrian army position near the Khan Touman area, reportedly to reduce pressure on the city.