US-backed Syrian rebels say they have taken full control of a key airbase held by the Islamic State group near its stronghold, Raqqa.
Talal Sello, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said they had seized Tabqa airport from militants. The news comes as the Kurdish-led fighters advance on Raqqa, IS’s self-declared capital.
Earlier IS warned that the nearby Tabqa dam could collapse, sparking widespread panic.
However, he US-led coalition fighting the jihadists denied claims that it had targeted the facility with airstrikes, leaving it dangerously vulnerable to failure. “The dam has not been structurally damaged to our knowledge and the coalition seeks to preserve the integrity of the dam as a vital resource to the people of Syria,” a spokesperson told the BBC.
The Tabqa airbase was seized by IS militants in 2014 from the Syrian army. The jihadists then carried out a mass execution of captured soldiers.
Its capture by rebels was part of an offensive aimed at also taking control of the dam – the largest in Syria – as well as Tabqa town, on the way to Raqqa. There have been conflicting reports about damage to the dam – about 40km (25 miles) upstream of the Raqqa on the Euphrates river – with civilians reportedly fleeing to higher ground.
Although IS media channels warned the dam could burst, the militant group later reportedly sent cars around Raqqa with loudspeakers, telling people it was intact and they had no need to evacuate.Aside from being strategically important and providing electricity to the region, the dam complex is believed to be used as an IS headquarters where leaders plot attacks outside Syria, according to the Pentagon.
The Unired Nations recently warned that any damage to the dam could result in severe flooding. There were similar concerns last year for a dam outside Mosul, an IS stronghold in northern Iraq.
If the Mosul dam burst, floodwaters could kill 1.47 million Iraqis living along the River Tigris, the US Embassy noted. However, the dam has so far remained in operation. Meanwhile, US warplanes are supporting the Iraqi army’s mission to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group (IS).
This article was first published by the BBC