U.S.-backed Syrian alliance seizes town near Iraqi border

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A U.S.-backed Syrian rebel alliance on Friday captured the town of al Houl in Hasaka province, which had been held by Islamic State militants, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, part of the grouping, said. It was the first significant advance against IS by the Democratic Forces of Syria, which was formed last month. Redur Xelil, who is in the town, close to the Iraqi border, told Reuters Islamic State fighters had fled. Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the takeover. Al Houl has been the focus of a two-week-old campaign by the alliance to flush out Islamic State from northeastern areas. The advance came as Kurdish forces across the border in Iraq, backed by U.S. air strikes, seized the town of Sinjar from Islamic State fighters, in one of the most significant counter-attacks since the jihadists swept through northern Iraq last year. "The main supply route to Sinjar goes through al Houl," said Xelil, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia. "This achievement proves that the alliance ... is an effective force that is capable of making advances and defeating Daesh in the 60 km (40 miles) between al Houl and Sinjar," he said. The Democratic Forces of Syria, which joins together the U.S.-backed YPG and several Syrian Arab rebel groups, announced its formation in October, and launched an offensive against IS in Hasaka later that month. The United States has recently sent weapons to members of the alliance, which includes Kurdish and Arab insurgent groups, after Washington shifted its Syria policy towards supplying rebel groups whose commanders are U.S.-vetted. (Reporting by Tom Perry, writing by Mariam Karouny, John Davison; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt/Ruth Pitchford)

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