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Mar 24, 10:23 AM EDT

The Latest: Clashes erupt near key IS-held dam in Syria


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The Latest: Clashes erupt near key IS-held dam in Syria

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BEIRUT (AP) -- The Latest on the conflict in Syria (all times local):

4:30 p.m.

A Syrian monitoring group and a spokeswoman for a U.S.-backed force say intense clashes are ongoing near a major dam held by the Islamic State group on the Euphrates river.

Cihan Sheikh Ehmed, the spokeswoman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said Friday the fighting is ongoing at the entrance of the dam, adding that there are casualties among IS fighters. She gave no further details.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters are marching toward the buildings of the Tishrin Dam carefully because of mines and explosives planted by IS.

The push toward the dam comes three days after U.S. aircraft ferried Syrian Kurdish fighters and allies behind IS lines to spearhead a major ground assault on the IS-held town of Tabqa where the dam is located.

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4.p.m

Syria's U.N. ambassador says hundreds of American personnel are "invading my country" and insists any effort to liberate the city of Raqqa from control of the radical Islamic State group should be done in coordination with the Damascus government.

Speaking after Friday's start of a new round of U.N.-mediated peace talks in Geneva, Bashar al-Ja'afari also insisted that "American warplanes" had bombed a school in the village of Mansourah, west of Raqqa, a day earlier and were responsible for the deaths of 237 civilians among some 500 people fleeing Raqqa. He did not elaborate.

Al-Ja'afari said any military presence in Syria without government approval was "illegitimate."

Using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, he said: "Those who are truly fighting Daesh are the Syrian Army with the help of our allies from Russia and Iran."

The U.S. has deployed more than 700 advisers, Marines and Rangers to Syria to support fighters battling Islamic State.

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3 p.m.

Syrian opposition activists say U.S.-backed fighters are on the offensive to capture a major village east of the northern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been on the offensive since November under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition aiming to surround Raqqa.

The Britain- based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters are clashing inside the village of Karama. It added that SDF fighters are marching under airstrike and artillery cover from the U.S.-led coalition.

Mohammed Khedhr of Sound and Picture Organization that documents IS violations also confirmed that battles are taking place inside Karama, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) east of Raqqa, as SDF try to take it.

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2 p.m.

The U.N. Syria envoy has kicked off the formal start of the fifth round of peace talks over 14 months between envoys from President Bashar Assad's government and opposition groups, amid slim hopes for an immediate breakthrough.

The envoy, Staffan de Mistura, hosted Syrian ambassador Bashar al-Ja'afari at U.N. offices in Geneva for the talks set to take place over at least several days around issues of governance, elections, a new constitution, and the fight against terrorism.

De Mistura was set to meet with the main opposition delegation later Friday. The talks come amid a recent escalation in fighting in Syria, notably in and around Damascus.

The two sides are still not meeting face-to-face, despite jointly attending a fourth-round ceremony last month in a U.N. assembly hall.

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10:45 a.m.

France's defense minister says the battle by international forces to take back the Islamic State group's de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria will start in the coming days.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Raqqa is a "major objective" for the U.S.-led coalition trying to quash IS extremists in Syria and Iraq.

Le Drian spoke on CNEWS television on Friday.

He says: "Today we can say that Raqqa is encircled and that the battle will begin in the coming days. It will be a very hard battle but it will be an essential battle."

As the coalition advances in its battle to retake the IS stronghold of Mosul in Iraq, the U.S. has been intensifying involvement in Syria's conflict ahead of the battle for Raqqa.

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