First Published: 2017-10-15

US-backed forces announce ‘final phase’ of Raqa recapture
Jihadists flee former capital of self-styled ‘caliphate’ as SDF forces announce ‘final phase’ of battle to recapture Raqa.
Middle East Online

"They [jihadists] took civilians as human shields and left," adds Alloush

AIN ISSA - US-backed forces announced Sunday the "final phase" of the battle to retake Syria's Raqa, after the city was evacuated except for foreign Islamic State group fighters and their families.

More than 3,000 civilians fled Raqa on Saturday night under an evacuation deal that left just a few hundred foreign IS fighters and some of their relatives in the handful of positions they still hold in their one-time Syrian stronghold.

Commanders said the way was now clear for a final assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab militia alliance that broke into Raqa in June and has since captured 90 percent of the city.

SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the 3,000 civilians had evacuated to areas controlled by the SDF under a deal negotiated between local officials from the Raqa Civil Council and Syrian IS fighters.

"Raqa is now empty of civilians who had been taken as human shields," he said.

"Only 250 to 300 foreign terrorists who refused the deal and decided to stay and fight until the end remain in the city, and relatives of some members are with them," he said, without specifying the number of civilians.

Sello said a total of 275 Syrian IS fighters and family members had also left jihadist-held parts of the city and were with SDF fighters.

He declined to specify where those jihadists and their families would go.

With the deal's implementation, the SDF announced what it said was the last phase of the fight to capture the city.

"We are now in the final phase of the battle for Raqa," Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF's Raqa campaign, said.

In a statement, the SDF said that the last phase of the fighting would "end the presence of the terrorist mercenaries inside the city".

"The battle... will continue until the entire city is cleared of terrorists who refuse to surrender, including foreign terrorists."

- 'Surrender or fight' -

There had been speculation for days about a deal to allow the SDF to capture the last parts of the city while preventing further civilian casualties.

But there had been contradictory reports about whether the deal would allow foreign IS fighters to leave, something that has been strongly opposed by the US-led coalition supporting the SDF.

The Raqa Civil Council issued a statement Sunday afternoon denying that foreign IS fighters had been allowed to leave the city, after one of its members said "a portion of the foreigners have left."

The RCC said "for clarification and accuracy, the foreign Daesh (IS) are not at all the concern of the Raqa Civil Council and the tribal leaders and they cannot be pardoned."

"Those who have surrendered are only Syrians, and they number a total of 275 including their families."

The US-led coalition had on Saturday announced a convoy would leave the city, specifying that it would not include foreign IS fighters.

"We're very adamant about not allowing foreign fighters to leave the city," coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said on Sunday.

"Our stance was they either stay and fight or they surrender unconditionally."

"The last thing we want is foreign fighters to go free so they can return to their countries of origin and cause more terror and more havoc," he added.

But Dillon said local officials had not been asked for guarantees.

"This is a local solution," he said.

"While we may not fully agree with our partners sometimes, we have to respect their own solutions to their issues."

IS captured Raqa in 2014, and under its rule the city become synonymous with the jihadist group's worst abuses, and was transformed into a planning centre for attacks abroad.

The loss of Raqa would be only the latest blow for IS, which has suffered a string of setbacks in recent months.

It was driven from its largest Iraqi stronghold Mosul in July and now holds only a sliver of territory in the country.

In Syria, its presence is largely confined to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where it is under attack by both the SDF and a Russia-backed Syrian government campaign.

On Saturday, Syria's army seized the former IS stronghold of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor.

 

Bloodbath in Syria's eastern Ghouta

Two hardline Syria rebels announce merger

IS kills 25 Iraqi militiamen near Kirkuk

Sudan frees dozens of activists detained after protests

Saudi Arabia to host first Arab Fashion Week

Abbas calls for peace conference in rare UN speech

Egyptian court adds leading government critic on terror list

Yemen government offensive threatens heritage site

Turkey considering chemical castration for child abusers

45 civilians killed in air strikes on rebel enclave

Cairo sheds Ottoman-era street names amid Egypt-Turkey crisis

New woes for Israeli PM in fresh graft cases

Maghreb countries wary about jihadists relocating from Iraq, Syria

Erdogan says Turkey will besiege Afrin "swiftly"

Turkey releases leading pro-Kurdish politician

5 Iranian police killed in Sufi protests

Iran finds wreckage of crashed plane on top of mountain

Israel’s gas contract with Egypt: deal or no deal?

Somalia appoints new police, intelligence chiefs

Iran plane crash rescue search halted for second night

France reaffirms commitment to Iran nuclear deal

Turkey warns Syria against protecting Kurds

Abbas warms up to Moscow amid cold US-Palestinian ties

Israel strikes 'historic' gas contract with Egypt

Are Iranian satellite channels aiding regime change?

Israel pounds Gaza with air strikes after rocket attack

Iraq orders deportation of French jihadist

Pro-Assad militias to enter Syria's Afrin

Three Egyptian soldiers killed in Sinai

Israeli, US officials meet over gas row with Lebanon

Iran's supreme leader says progress needed on justice

Syria Kurds claim striking positions in Turkey

Netanyahu warns Iran, brandishes piece of metal

66 feared dead as plane crashes in Iranian mountains

Saudi women to open businesses without male permission

Netanyahu slams 'outrageous' Holocaust remark by Polish PM

Israeli air strikes kill 2 in Gaza

Six suffer breathing difficulties after Turkish shelling in Afrin

Russian mercenaries - a discrete weapon in Syria

Iran protests ban on wrestler who threw bout to avoid Israel

Fears of expanding Syrian war could trigger peace deal

Battle to free Mosul of IS 'intellectual terrorism'

Turkey frees Garman-Turk journalist after one year without charge

Turkey hands life sentences to 3 journalists for Gulen links

Turkey, US agree to ‘work together’ in Syria