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Red Cross hopes to repair Tabqa dam near Syria's Raqqa

GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) plans to carry out urgent repairs to Tabqa Dam near the Syrian city of Raqqa in an area recaptured from Islamic State, a spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Vehicles drive near Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, in the town of Tabqa, after Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured it from Islamic State militants this week, Syria May 12, 2017. Picture taken May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

The aid agency was able to enter Raqqa and Hassakeh provinces in late July for the first time in four years to see the destruction wrought by the jihadists, the fighting and U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

U.S.-backed Syrian militias drove Islamic State out of the town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam, 45 kms (25 miles) west of Raqqa along the Euphrates River, in May, but it took time to negotiate safe access.

“The priority for us right now is the water issue,” ICRC spokeswoman Ingy Sedky, speaking from Damascus, told Reuters.

Islamic State has lost swathes of territory to separate campaigns being waged by Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran, and by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia.

SDF officials, focused on capturing Raqqa city, say the advances are proceeding cautiously as Islamic State uses snipers, car bombs and booby traps.

Tabqa dam, whose control room was damaged, is the main source of electricity for all of Syria and provides irrigation water for Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Rural Aleppo, Sedky said. The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent sent generators some months ago to keep it operating but now engineers are needed.

Sedky said the organization was discussing maintenance work to pumps and to provide lubrication oil. It aims to restart water pumping stations that serve tens of thousands of displaced civilians who have fled Raqqa city.

ICRC staff visited five camps holding about 25,000 of the 200,000 displaced people who have fled fighting in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor cities.

“We’ve started in one of the camps to distribute bottles of water on a daily basis,” Sedky said, referring to Arisha camp in Hassakeh, which houses 6,000 people in an area contaminated with toxic waste that used to serve as a petroleum refinery.

“Some of the camps didn’t even have toilets,” she said. “Waste management will also be our focus and the installation of latrines.”

ICRC health experts will also evaluate what medical supplies are needed in the five camps.

“The people we talked with, many of them lost their houses or family members because of the continuous bombardments inside the city. Many schools, hospitals and health centers were destroyed,” Sedky said. “They say nothing is functioning inside Raqqa city.”

Between 10,000 and 20,000 people remain trapped in Raqqa City, according to United Nations estimates.

“We know there are still thousands and thousands that must be given safe passage in order to leave the city,” she said.

Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Janet Lawrence