BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Kurdish-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of the town of Tal Rifaat on Monday, seizing territory close to the Turkish border and pushing east towards Islamic State-held territory, conflict monitors said.
The move means the SDF - which include the Kurdish YPG militia - has further consolidated recent gains around the rebel-held Syrian town of Azaz, the last before the border with Turkey.
Turkey, which considers the YPG to be a terrorist group, has warned Kurdish fighters in northern Syria they would face the “harshest reaction” if they tried to capture Azaz and has been shelling SDF forces for the past few days.
But YPG fighters appear now to be moving eastwards rather than north, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group and a rebel commander told Reuters, towards the front line with Islamic State to the east of Azaz.
The Observatory’s head, Rami Abdulrahman, said the SDF was now about 6 km away from IS territory southeast of Tal Rifaat.
The SDF was formed last year in an alliance with the YPG. Since then, the SDF has mostly fought Islamic State and insurgent groups who are fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebel groups see the SDF as a front for the YPG, though it includes groups that count themselves as “Free Syrian Army”.
Syrian insurgents confirmed to Reuters that the SDF had taken significant parts of Tal Rifaat. Some said it had recaptured the whole town. Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
“You can consider that the whole town has been seized,” one Syrian insurgent said.
A Syrian government offensive against rebels, supported by Russian bombing and Iranian-backed forces, has brought the army to within 25 km (15 miles) of Turkey’s border and Kurdish-backed forces have exploited the situation, seizing ground to extend its presence along the frontier.
In the past 24 hours, SDF forces have also taken control of the village of Ayn Deqna — cutting the main road north from Tal Rifaat to Azaz, and the village of Kefr Nasih — just south-east of Tal Rifaat, the Observatory said.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Mariam Karouny and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich