(MENAFN- Gulf Times) The Syrian army and its allies are fighting to secure a corridor to troops in Deir Ezzor, a day after they smashed through Islamic State lines to break the militant siege.
The army reached Deir Ezzor city on Tuesday in a days-long thrust that followed months of steady advances east across the desert, breaking a siege that had lasted three years.
Islamic State counter-attacks lasted through the day, trying to repel the army, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Fierce battles raged around the city, as troops sought to expand the route and allow aid in, the British-based war monitor added.
'Work is progressing to secure the route and widen the flanks so as not to be cut or targeted by (Islamic State), said a commander in the military alliance backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
'The next step is to liberate the city, the non-Syrian commander said.
It points to a tough battle ahead as the army aims to move from breaching the siege to driving Islamic State militants from their half of the city, the sort of street-by-street warfare in which they excel.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the army had made gains expanding its control near the corridor after heavy artillery and air strikes.
Assad and his allies including Hezbollah — will follow the relief of Deir Ezzor with an offensive along the Euphrates valley, the commander said.
The Euphrates valley cuts a lush, populous swathe of green about 260km long and 10km wide through the Syrian desert from Raqqa to the Iraqi border at
The area has been an Islamic State stronghold in Syria but came under attack this year when a US-backed alliance of militias besieged and assaulted Raqqa.
Rapidly losing territory in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State is falling back on the Euphrates towns downstream of Deir Ezzor, including Al-Mayadin and Al-Bukamal, where many expect it to make a last stand.
Still, the militant group specialises in urban combat, using car bombs, mines, tunnels and drones, and has held out against full-scale attack for months in some towns and cities.
Islamic State has 6,000-8,000 fighters left in Syria, despite losing most of its territory across both Iraq and Syria since September 2014, the United States-led coalition said.
Parallel with their thrust towards Deir Ezzor, the Syrian military and its allies have been fighting Islamic State in its last pocket of ground in central Syria, near the town of Al-Salamiya on the Homs-Aleppo highway.
Yesterday, army advances gained control of four villages there, further tightening the pocket, a military media unit run by Lebanon's Hezbollah said.
In Raqqa, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance says it has taken about 65% of Islamic State's former self-declared Syrian capital.
Deir Ezzor lies along the southwest bank of the Euphrates. The government enclave includes the northern half of the city and the Brigade 137 military base to the west.
The army also holds an air base and nearby streets, separated from the rest of the enclave by hundreds of metres of IS-held ground and still cut off from the advancing army.
Government forces will push towards the besieged airbase, the pro-Assad commander said.
Instead of breaking the siege along the main road from Palmyra, stretches of which remain in Islamic State hands, the army reached the Brigade 137 along a narrow salient from the northwest. The corridor from the west into Brigade 137 was only about 500 metres wide, the commander said.
The United Nations has estimated that 93,000 civilians were living under IS siege in Deir al-Zor in 'extremely difficult conditions, with some high-altitude air drops supplying them.
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