Reuters International

Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces prepare to fire a mortar shell towards positions held by Islamic State fighters in northern province of Raqqa, Syria May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces and their allies took control of a strategic crossroads in Raqqa province on Friday in their latest advance towards Islamic State strongholds in the area, the army and a monitoring group said.

The seizure of the junction, which leads to Raqqa city, Islamic State's de facto capital and also to Tabqa, another city it controls, came as part of a week-old Syrian government offensive against the jihadists, backed by Russian air power.

The Syrian army's campaign is taking place as U.S.-backed forces separately advance against IS militants around Manbij near the Turkish border further northwest and make gains in the countryside north of Raqqa city.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said government-allied forces were 15 km (9 miles) from Tabqa. A military source said in February that Tabqa, some 50 km (30 miles) west of Raqqa city, would be the first target of a Syrian government attack in Raqqa province.

The army said large numbers of IS fighters had been killed in the campaign. The Observatory said some 80 IS militants had died.

It was the first confirmation from the army that it had advanced into Raqqa province itself, after beginning the campaign further west in Hama province.

The Observatory said U.S.-backed forces north of Raqqa were also advancing, but slowly.

(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Larry King)

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