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Mar 27, 10:21 AM EDT

US-backed fighters to pause military action near Syria dam



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BEIRUT (AP) -- U.S.-backed forces in northern Syria said Monday they will pause military operations near a major dam held by the Islamic State group in order to allow engineers to fix any problems after conflicting reports about its stability.

The decision by the Syrian Democratic Forces came a day after conflicting reports over whether civilians had begun evacuating the nearby city of Raqqa - the extremists' de facto capital - due to concerns about the Tabqa dam on the Euphrates River.

Some activist groups opposed to IS have said residents are seeking higher ground, fearing that the collapse of the dam could cause severe flooding, while others said people were remaining in place. Conflicting reports are common in areas controlled by IS, which bans independent media.

The SDF, a U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led force, has been fighting IS in the area since Friday in an attempt to capture the dam, one of the main sources of electricity in northern Syria.

The SDF said in a terse statement that the four-hour cease-fire will begin at 1 p.m. (1100 GMT) Monday. It said the request for a cease-fire was made by the dam's administrators, without specifying whether they were part of the Syrian government or IS, which operates a quasi-state in the areas under its control.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 200 technicians are in Tabqa waiting for the fighting to stop so they can enter the facility and activate a main engine.

The SDF said in a statement issued two hours after the pause of fighting went into effect saying that the experts visited the dam and did not find any technical problem.

The engineer Haytham Bakour, who used to work at the dam and now lives in southern Turkey, said that four hours is not enough time for engineers to inspect the dam.

Another engineer, Ahmad Farhat, who headed of the Mechanical Administration of the dam, said that it is "equipped with the necessary precautions for its own protection," but there needs to be technical personnel on site to engage them. He spoke with The Associated Press from the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.

The U.S.-led coalition said it is taking every precaution to ensure the integrity of the dam. "To our knowledge, the dam has not been structurally damaged," it said on its Twitter account.

SDF fighters on Sunday captured a strategically important air base from IS in Raqqa province, marking their first major victory since the United States airlifted hundreds of forces, as well as American advisers and artillery, behind enemy lines last week.

The SDF announced they had captured the Tabqa air base, 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Raqqa.

On Monday, IS fighters detonated a car bomb on the southern edge of the air base, but it was not clear if it inflicted casualties among SDF fighters, the activist collective Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and the Observatory reported.

Fighting is ongoing in areas near the air base, both activist groups said. The SDF said in another statement that its fighters captured two villages north of Tabqa on Monday.

Elsewhere in Syria, another group of Syrian rebels began leaving the last opposition-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs with their families under a Russia-brokered deal with the Syrian government, state TV and the province's governor said.

Opposition activists have criticized the agreement, saying it aims to displace 12,000 al-Waer residents, including 2,500 fighters. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has called the evacuees "internally displaced" people.

The government has rejected allegations that the Homs deal and similar agreements in other besieged areas amount to the forced displacement of civilians.

Syrian state TV said the latest round of evacuations from al-Waer involves around 728 people - 254 of them fighters.

"Matters are moving smoothly and there are no obstacles," Homs Governor Talal Barrazi told the AP by telephone. The evacuation was planned to take place on Saturday, but no reason was given for the delay.

Opposition fighters agreed to leave al-Waer after years of siege and bombardment at the hands of pro-government forces. They were guaranteed safe passage to rebel-held parts of northern Syria.

The evacuations are expected to last weeks, after which the government will be able to claim control over the entire city for the first time in years.

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Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Philip Issa in Beirut contributed to this report.

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