SDF hails 'historic victory' against IS in Raqa
RAQA - The Kurdish-led force that expelled the Islamic State group from Raqa hailed a "historic victory" Friday in the devastated city's stadium and vowed to hand over power to a civilian administration.
Three days after fully retaking the northern Syrian city that was considered the inner sanctum of IS's now moribund "caliphate", the Syrian Democratic Forces held an official ceremony.
The group however stopped short of transferring authority to the Raqa Civil Council because it said much ordnance disposal remained to be done before the city could be left in civilian hands.
"We dedicate this historic victory to all humanity," said Talal Sello, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that took full control of Raqa on Tuesday. He spoke in front of a modest attendance of fighters and council members.
"We in the general command of the Syrian Democratic Forces announce that we will hand over the administration of the city of Raqa and the surrounding countryside to the internal security forces in Raqa," Sello added, referring to part of a civil authority set up for the city.
"We pledge to protect the borders of the province against all external threats, and we confirm that the future of Raqqa province will be determined by its people within the framework of a decentralised, federal democratic Syria in which the people of the province will run their own affairs."
For three years, Raqa saw some of IS's worst abuses and grew into one of its main governance hubs, a centre for both its potent propaganda machine and its unprecedented experiment in jihadist statehood.
After losing its major strongholds in Iraq and Syria one after the other, the "state" the jihadists proclaimed in 2014 has shrunk to barely a tenth of its original size and the loss of Raqa hammered yet another nail in its coffin.
At the ceremony held in the stadium where jihadists made their last stand in the city on Tuesday, Sello vowed the US-backed SDF would transfer power soon.
"After the end of clearing operations... we will hand over the city to the Raqa Civil Council," he said.
- Huge reconstruction effort -
He stressed the SDF would maintain its presence in the area and reiterated the Kurdish-Arab military alliance's support for a federal system in Syria, something the regime in Damascus has so far opposed.
The US praised the local Syrian forces for a "milestone" victory, but warned the war against the jihadists is far from over.
"The liberation of Raqa is a critical milestone in the global fight against ISIS," the State Department said in a statement congratulating the SDF and other forces.
But the "loss of Raqa does not mean our fight against ISIS is over," it added, using an alternate acronym for the jihadist group.
"The global coalition will continue to draw on all elements of national power -- military, intelligence, diplomacy, economic, law enforcement, and the strength of our communities until all Syrians have been liberated from ISIS brutality and we can ensure that it can no longer export its terror around the world."
The US-led coalition of nations that has been providing air support and training to local ground forces also sent congratulations.
"We are still fighting the remnants of (IS) in Iraq and Syria, and will continue to facilitate humanitarian efforts assisting citizens adversely affected by a brutal occupation, who face a long battle to gain their freedom," Lieutenant General Paul Funk, who heads the coalition, said in a statement.
"A tough fight still lies ahead."
France is the United States' key partner in the international coalition assisting local anti-IS forces and a spokesman in Paris Friday argued some jihadists remained in small pockets of the city.
"The return of civilians to Raqa will not take place in any major way for many weeks, such is the quantity of explosive devices Daesh left behind," French military spokesman Patrik Steiger said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Raqa was heavily damaged during the more than four-month battle, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said left more than 3,200 people dead, including 1,130 civilians.
Ahmed al-Ali, a 31-year-old member of the RCC's reconstruction committee, expressed his shock at discovering the extent of the destruction before the ceremony.
"Today is the first time I've come to the city since its liberation," he said.
"I haven't managed to get to my house on Al-Qitar street. I'd pay half a million dollars just to see its door," he added, breaking into tears and walking away.
- Deir Ezzor violence -
One of his colleagues, Mahmud Mohamed, admitted that his idea of what reconstruction would entail changed the second he entered Raqa.
"When we came into the city, the plan changed completely. What I had imagined," the 27-year-old paused, "it's so much worse."
The mood was sombre among the members of the council that will run the city as they sat quietly on plastic chairs while SDF fighters danced and sang noisily behind them.
Syria regime forces have remained conspicuously silent over one of the most high-profile victories against IS and focused on its own Russian-backed offensive in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Some of the SDF fighters who fought in Raqa have already redeployed to Deir Ezzor to join a rival US-backed offensive in the province, a spokesman said.
At least 16 civilians including several children were killed in air strikes in Deir Ezzor on Thursday believed to have been carried out by Russian jets, the Observatory said.
Some of them were trying to cross the Euphrates river near Albu Kamal, on the Iraqi border, one of IS's last remaining strongholds, the monitor said.