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BEIRUT -- U.S. aircraft ferried Syrian Kurdish fighters and allied forces behind Islamic State lines on Wednesday to spearhead a major ground assault on a strategic town held by the extremist group outside its self-declared capital, Raqqa, the Pentagon said.

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, which supplies electric power to the area.

"This is a significant strategic target," Pahon said. If successful, the operation would "basically cut ISIS off" from the western approaches to Raqqa, he said. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.

The U.S. has significantly widened its footprint in northern Syria in the past few weeks as it prepares for the operation to push the militants from Raqqa, deploying a Marine artillery unit and a few dozen Army Rangers in addition to special operations troops and advisers to assist the local forces.

Wednesday's airlift, which Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, described as a first, displayed a new level of commitment to Syria's Kurds, whose partnership with the U.S. in fighting the Islamic State has prompted difficult discussions with Turkey, which sees the militants as a national security threat.

Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition that is overseeing the counter-Islamic State campaign in Syria and Iraq, said multiple U.S. helicopters and other aircraft were used to land the Syrian fighters south of Tabqa. The U.S. also provided artillery fire from a Marine contingent, as well as close air support by U.S. Army Apache helicopters, he said.

"This is pretty major," he said, adding that the fight for the dam, the town and an airfield is expected to last at least a couple of weeks. He would not say how many Syrian fighters were involved. In contradiction to earlier U.S. statements, Scrocca said some of the Syrian fighters who were airlifted to Tabqa were Kurds. He said 75 percent to 80 percent of the fighters were Syrian Arabs.

The U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed the airlift and said its fighters seized four villages south of the Euphrates and cut the main artery between Raqqa and northwestern Syria.

The group said in a statement on social media that U.S. infantry were also airlifted into the area of operations. The Pentagon initially said the airlift was for Syrian fighters only, but Scrocca later said an undisclosed number of U.S. military advisers were also flown in. Both said that no U.S. troops were involved in fighting on the front line.

Tabqa lies 28 miles west of Raqqa. The Islamic State controls the town as well as the dam and the military airfield nearby.

"This is a big operation," Pahon said, adding that Tabqa is an important Islamic State-held area because of the dam. He said the 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.

Retaking the dam would go a long way in isolating Raqqa and is a crucial step ahead of the assault on the city. There has been concern the militant group would destroy the dam, flooding the region.

Also Wednesday, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State 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 Wednesday that dozens of people were killed or missing after an airstrike the day before leveled a school near Raqqa where displaced families had sought refuge.

The activist-run group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said about 50 families had been sheltering at the school in the northern Syrian village of Mansoura and that their fate was unknown. Mansoura is 16 miles west of Raqqa and is under Islamic State control.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 33 bodies had been pulled from the rubble. The two organizations rely on local contacts to smuggle news out of Islamic State-held territory.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the airstrike. Syrian Kurdish forces have been advancing on Raqqa under the cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and are now 5 miles north of the city. Syrian and Russian aircraft have also carried out strikes against the Islamic State.

Information for this article was contributed by Mathew Lee, Bradley Klapper, Albert Aji and James Heintz of The Associated Press.

A Section on 03/23/2017

Print Headline: U.S. airlift places allies behind ISIS' Syria lines

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