Talks to let civilians leave IS-held Raqa
KOBANE - Local officials and Syrian tribal leaders are leading "discussions" to secure safe passage for civilians from parts of Raqa still held by the Islamic State group, the US-led coalition said Tuesday.
The coalition is backing an offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have ousted IS from around 90 percent of its one-time Syrian bastion.
On Tuesday, the coalition said local officials from the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) -- a government-in-exile based north of the battle-torn city -- were negotiating the exit of civilians from remaining IS-held areas.
"The Raqa Civil Council is leading discussions to determine the best way to enable civilians trapped by Daesh to exit the city, where some are being held as human shields by the terrorists," the coalition said in an emailed statement, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
"Those departing Raqa who are found to have fought for Daesh will be turned over to local authorities to face justice."
Contacted by AFP, RCC co-chair Laila Mustafa declined to comment on the discussions.
"We have a responsibility to defeat Daesh (IS) while preserving civilian life to the greatest extent possible," said the coalition's director of operations Jonathan Braga in the statement.
"Make no mistake: a lot of hard fighting remains and we are committed to the lasting defeat of Daesh."
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Raqa, once the de facto Syrian capital of IS's self-styled Islamic "caliphate".
But some 8,000 people remain trapped in the city, the UN's humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said last week.
The SDF's press centre on Tuesday said nearly 200 civilians had made it out of the city in the past 24 hours into SDF-controlled territory.
The force, made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has closed off all media access to Raqa since Sunday.
Raqa activist groups on Tuesday night said the discussions would allow IS fighters to withdraw from the city unarmed, but the SDF's press centre denied the reports.
The US-led coalition has backed the SDF's months-long drive for Raqa with air strikes, weapons, intelligence, and special forces advisors.
The statement did not specify with whom the RCC was discussing the exit of civilians but said the talks came "as the fall of Daesh's so-called capital draws nearer."
The SDF had been advancing on IS-held districts from two fronts in the city's north and east, Rojda Felat, who heads the "Wrath of the Euphrates" campaign, told AFP on Sunday.
"If the two fronts meet, we can say we have entered the final week of our campaign to liberate Raqa," Felat said.