A U.S.-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance in northern Syria says it has driven Islamic State (IS) militants out of a strategic air base that was the site of an IS massacre in 2014.
"The Syrian Democratic Forces have full control of Tabqa military airport, and operations to clear and demine are under way in order to secure the airport fully," Talal Sello, a spokesman for the alliance, told AFP on March 26.
The airport could now be used as a launching pad for an assault on nearby Tabqa dam, which is held by IS fighters.
The militants warned on March 26 that the dam could burst after air strikes by coalition warplanes.
Coalition officials denied the IS claim and said SDF fighters had control of a spillway north of the dam that can be used to alleviate pressure on the dam if need be."
The United Nations has warned of catastrophic flooding in Syria from the Tabqa dam from possible deliberate sabotage by IS and damage from coalition air strikes.
U.S. planes and special forces have provided air and ground support to the SDF fighters, who are moving closer to an assault on the IS capital of Raqqa, about 40 kilometers from the dam.
The Kurdish-Arab alliance is attempting to encircle Raqqa, the last IS stronghold in Syria, before assaulting the city.
At some points, they are as close as eight kilometers from the city, although most forces are 18 to 29 kilometers away, officials said.
The Tabqa air base was captured by militants from the Syrian government in August 2014.
IS, which has been blamed for multiple human rights atrocities, immediately announced it had killed about 200 government soldiers at the base and then distributed a video of the killings.
IS fighters, who seized large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory in 2014, are now being pressed on two fronts -- around Raqqa and in Mosul, their last stronghold and so-called capital in Iraq.
More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since its conflict began in March 2011 with antigovernment protests.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.