HERBEL, SYRIA / WASHINGTON —
U.S.-backed Syrian forces have liberated three more villages in northern Syria from Islamic State control, further pushing IS out of territory it held for years.
A VOA reporter traveled to the villages of Herbel, Um Hosh and Um Qurra — all now controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters backed by the United States.
IS has retreated to nearby villages and the SDF is pursuing the extremist group's fighters.
WATCH: US-backed Forces Push IS From 3 Strategic Villages
"The fighting is ongoing in nearby villages," said Mahmud, an SDF commander who preferred to use only his first name. "Our goal is to rid [IS] from all this area."
The anti-IS forces advanced as U.S. warplanes targeted the extremists' positions in the area. That part of northern Syria has been strategically important for IS, situated on a vital trade route between the Turkish border and the terror group's self-declared capital, Raqqa.
Islamic State has sent some of its top leaders to the area to supervise operations against Syrian government troops and other local fighters. Among those leaders was Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the chief spokesman for IS, as well as a central figure in the group's operations outside Syria and Iraq, such as in Western Europe.
Al-Adnani was killed by a U.S. airstrike this week outside the village of Washiya, not far from the areas the U.S.-backed militias have just captured. Islamic State first announced al-Adnani's death, and SDF leaders in northern Syria told VOA that local residents had confirmed his fate.
In addition to directing Islamic State's attacks outside the Middle East, al-Adnani was directly involved in recruiting foreign fighters to join the group, a U.S. defense official said.
After news of al-Adnani's death was announced, Russia's defense ministry said its warplanes had killed him, along with 40 other IS militants, during a bombing raid in Aleppo province Tuesday. U.S. officials have dismissed that claim as "yet another attempt [by Russia] at disinformation."
As IS retreats from villages in northern Syria, VOA reporters said different forces are filling the void. Within 20 kilometers of Herbel, Syrian regime troops, Turkish-backed rebels and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have taken up positions.