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IS faces imminent defeat in Raqa; campaign focuses on Deir Al-Zor

RAQA, Syria: Photo shows the damage near the central hospital of the embattled northern Syrian city of Raqa. – AFP

AIN ISSA: Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists today, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said yesterday. The US-led coalition against Islamic State said around 100 of the jihadist group’s fighters had surrendered in Raqa in the last 24 hours and had been “removed from the city”, but it still expected difficult fighting “in the days ahead”. It did not say how they had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining Islamic State fighters were being transported out of Raqa by bus under a deal between Islamic State, the US-led coalition and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG. There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF. The SDF, backed by coalition air strikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.


The final defeat of Islamic State at Raqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group’s self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.  “The battles are continuing in Raqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone. In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said around 100 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in Raqa in the last 24 hours and were “removed from the city”, without giving further details.


“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think (Islamic State) will be completely defeated in Raqa,” he said, adding that around 85 percent of Raqa had been liberated as of Oct 13. Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added. Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqa, told Reuters late on Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and “a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqa province”, without giving further details.


An activist group that reports on Raqa, Raqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page on Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqa city overnight, having travelled from the northern Raqa countryside. The Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken to.


Deir Al-Zor campaign


During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians. The campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir Al-Zor which neighbors Iraq. Islamic State is facing separate offensives in Deir Al-Zor by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian air strikes on the other.


In August, Islamic State fighters agreed to be evacuated from a Lebanon-Syria border area, the first time the militants had publicly agreed to a forced evacuation from territory they held in Syria. Civilians have been making perilous journeys to escape Islamic State-held areas as SDF forces advance. The SDF says it helps transport them away from the fighting after they flee. The offensive to drive Islamic State out of Raqa, its de facto Syrian capital which it seized in 2014, has long outlasted initial predictions by SDF officials who said ahead of an assault in June that it could take just weeks.


The battle for Raqa has taken a severe toll on civilians. Those inside the city for months have endured miserable conditions, lacking water, power, food and healthcare. Rights group Amnesty International, the Observatory and monitoring group Airwars say hundreds have been killed by air strikes, fighting and Islamic State snipers and mines. The coalition says it takes great pains to avoid causing civilian casualties and investigates all reports that it has done so. – Reuters


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