Turkish president says troops advancing in northern Syria

BEIRUT (AP) " Turkey's president says his troops and allied Syrian fighters have reached the heart of the Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab in northern Syria and will eventually march on the extremists' de facto capital, Raqqa.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said IS fighters have begun deserting al-Bab, which has been under attack for weeks. But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, says Turkish troops have yet to enter the town's center, with the fighting still concentrated on its outskirts.

The Turkish-backed opposition forces advancing from the north are racing to seize al-Bab before Syrian government forces reach the town from the south. The Turkish-backed forces are still a long way from Raqqa, which is largely surrounded by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces.

Last week, the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces launched a new phase in its Raqqa offensive, aiming to capture towns and villages east of Raqqa. The U.S.-led coalition has targeted several bridges across the Euphrates River in support of the operation.

Turkey is leading Syrian opposition forces in a broad operation called "Euphrates Shield" against both IS and the SDF. Ankara views the Kurdish group that dominates the SDF as a terrorist organization because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

"After al-Bab is about to be over, the period following that will be Manbij and Raqqa," Erdogan said, referring to the northern town of Manbij, which was captured by the SDF last year after weeks of deadly fighting with IS.

"Right now al-Bab, whether by us or by the Free Syrian Army, is now besieged on all four sides and our forces along with the Free Syrian Army have entered the center," he said.

The Observatory reported intense clashes and Turkish airstrikes and shelling on the northern, western and southern edges of the town, which is 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Turkish border.

In Lebanon, the leader of the militant Hezbollah group, which is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's forces, said it supports a Dec. 30 cease-fire between the government and the opposition that was brokered by Turkey and Russia.

"We are with every measure that stops the shedding of blood and paves the way for a political solution" in Syria, Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech aired in Beirut. He was responding to claims by opposition media that Hezbollah opposes the truce.

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Associated Press writer Cinar Kiper in Istanbul contributed to this report.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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