February 8, 2017 - 16:10 AMT
Turkish army, Syrian rebels close in on IS town of al-Bab

Syrian rebels supported by Turkish armed forces have seized control of strategically important hills around the Islamic State-controlled town of al-Bab, Turkey's military said on Wednesday, February 8, according to Reuters.

It said in a statement that 58 Islamic State militants were killed in air strikes, artillery fire and clashes. Two Turkish soldiers had been killed and 15 slightly wounded.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the operations had made important progress and the next target would be the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State.

"The al-Bab operation must be completed immediately in the period ahead ... In recent days our special forces and the Free Syrian Army (rebels) have made serious progress," Cavusoglu told a news conference in the capital Ankara.

The battle for al-Bab has raised the prospect of confrontation between the Turkish military and the Syrian army, which has pushed to within a few kilometres of the city's southern outskirts.

A Syrian rebel official and a monitoring organisation said the advancing rebel and Turkish forces had captured the western outskirts of al-Bab, some 30 km (20 miles) south of the Turkish border.

"With last night’s assault, Islamic State’s defences have been broken through and the advance is now continuing," said the official, speaking from the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Turkish military reinforcements had been sent to the area about a week ago, the rebel added.

Al-Bab has been a major target of a Turkish offensive launched in northern Syria last August to drive Islamic State away from the border and prevent further gains by U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that are also fighting the jihadist group.

Syrian government forces and allied militia have mounted their own rapid advance towards al-Bab in the last few weeks. The city was encircled earlier this week when Syrian government forces cut the last way into the city.