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.

 

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Revolt in US State Department over child soldier law

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Morocco bans bitcoin transactions

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home

Rebels say Sanaa airport 'ready to run' after coalition bombing

Greece to amend historic sharia law for Muslim minority

Turkey to ask Germany to extradite top coup suspect

Car bomb in northern Iraq kills at least 24

13 million Syrians need aid despite relative drop in violence

Sudan urged to improve plight of Darfur's displaced people

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation

Palestinians close communication lines with Americans

Anti-IS coalition strikes drop to lowest number

German police arrest six Syrians ‘planning terror attack’

Palestinian factions in Cairo for reconciliation talks

Turkish opposition daily web editor sentenced to 3 years in jail

Israeli police arrest 33 in ultra-Orthodox draft riots

Turkish lira at new low against US dollar

Islamic republic declares end of Islamic State

Assad in Russia for talks with Putin

UN chief horrified by Libya slave auctions

Qatar 2022 chief has no regrets over hosting World Cup

Gheit says Lebanon should be 'spared' from regional tensions

Saudi Arabia, Arab allies push for unity against Iran, Hezbollah meddling

Syria ‘de-escalation zone’ does nothing to stop civilian deaths

Is a demilitarised Palestinian state a viable option?

S&P affirms good Saudi credit ratings

Israel president faces big backlash over Palestinian scarf

Sudan leader to visit Russia Thursday

Seven years into Libya’s civil war, the chaos continues