BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S.-backed Syrian militias said they temporarily halted military operations near the hydroelectric Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates river on Monday to allow government engineers access to carry out work.
There is official concern that the dam has been damaged and need repair to avoid potential catastrophe,
The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias supported by the U.S.-led coalition, has been battling Islamic State near the dam west of the Syrian city of Raqqa, as part of a campaign to capture the militant group's stronghold.
"To ensure the safety of the Euphrates dam . . . we have decided to halt operations around the dam for 4 hours," the SDF's Raqqa campaign said in a statement. The decision followed a request by the Syrian government's water authority, it said.
The director of the Syrian government's General Authority of Euphrates Dam, which formerly operated the huge project, blamed U.S. strikes in the past two days for disrupting internal control systems and putting the dam out of service. He warned of growing risks that could lead to flooding and future collapses.
The United Nations had warned this year of the risk of catastrophic flooding from the dam, which is at risk from high water levels, deliberate sabotage by Islamic State and further damage from coalition air strikes.
The dam, Syria's largest, stretches 4.5 km (2.8 miles) across the Euphrates river. Islamic State captured the dam and a nearby air base, located about 40 km (25 miles) upstream from Raqqa, at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
The SDF, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, seized the Tabqa military airport on Sunday. [nL5N1H30W5]
With help from the U.S.-led coalition, including air strikes and U.S. special forces on the ground, it has been closing in on Raqqa, Islamic State's base of operations in Syria, for months.
An SDF spokesman denied earlier that coalition strikes hit the structure of the dam.
"The capture of the dam is being conducted slowly and carefully," Talal Silo said. Militants dug inside the dam knowing they would not be hit for fear of damaging the structure, he added.
Hundreds of families fled Tabqa to the relative safety of outlying areas as coalition air strikes intensified in the past few days, according to former residents in touch with relatives.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; editing by Jeremy Gaunt)