US airlift supports assault on IS-held town near Raqqa
US aircraft have carried Syrian Kurdish fighters and allied forces behind Islamic State lines to spearhead an assault on a strategic town belonging to the extremist group.
The operation near Tabqa, outside Islamic State's de facto capital, Raqqa, is the first time US forces have provided an airlift for local forces on a combat operation in Syria.
The airlift was part of what Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon described as a large, high-priority offensive to secure the area around Tabqa and the associated Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River.
"This is a significant strategic target," said Mr Pahon. If successful, the operation would "basically cut Isis off" from the western approaches to Raqqa.
The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said their fighters seized four villages south of the Euphrates and cut the main artery between Raqqa and north-western Syria.
The group said in a statement on social media that US infantry were also airlifted into the area of operations.
The Pentagon said US military advisers were on the ground in the Tabqa area to help coordinate the operation, but said the airlift was for Syrian fighters only. It said no US troops were involved in fighting on the front line.
Tabqa lies 28 miles west of Raqqa. The IS group controls the town and a dam and military airfield nearby.
"This is a big operation," Mr Pahon said, adding that Tabqa is an important IS-held area because of the dam that provides electricity to the area.
He said Islamic State has controlled the area since 2013 and used it for a combination of purposes, including as a prison for high-profile hostages and as a training camp and headquarters.
Meanwhile, the US-led coalition against the IS group said it was looking into reports that a coalition aircraft may have struck a shelter for the displaced in the village of Mansoura.
Syrian activists said that dozens of people were killed or missing after an air strike the day before levelled a school near the IS-held city of Raqqa, where displaced families had sought refuge.
The activist-run group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently said some 50 families had been sheltering at the school and that their fate was still unknown. Mansoura is 16 miles west of Raqqa and is under IS control.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 33 bodies had been pulled from the rubble. The two organisations rely on local contacts to smuggle news out of IS-held territory.
Elsewhere in Syria, insurgents advanced on government-held towns and positions north of the central city of Hama. An al Qaida-linked group spearheaded the assault, launched on Tuesday, by detonating a car bomb in the nearby town of Souran.
The activist-run Hama Media Center said the rebels had reached the village of Khatab, six miles north west of government-held Hama. State media reported fighting on the outskirts of the village and Souran.
The offensive coincides with a concentrated effort by opposition forces to breach government lines in the eastern neighborhoods of the capital, Damascus. That operation is also spearheaded by the al Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee.