US-backed forces announce Raqa recapture
RAQA - US-backed forces said Tuesday they had taken full control of Raqa from the Islamic State group, defeating the last jihadist holdouts in the de facto Syrian capital of their now-shattered "caliphate".
The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been fighting inside the northern city since they broke in on June 6, flushed the few hundred IS fighters left in the city from their last positions in the main hospital and the national stadium.
"Everything is finished in Raqa, our forces have taken full control of Raqa," the alliance's spokesman Talal Sello said.
He said the SDF was combing the city for any remaining jihadists who had not surrendered or been killed, and added that a major mine-clearing operation was already under way.
"The military operations in Raqa have finished, but there are clearing operations now under way to uncover any sleeper cells there might be and remove mines," Sello said added.
The announcement came just days after the SDF said it was launching the final phase of its operation to retake the city.
There had been fears that the US-backed force could get bogged down in a protracted battle for the last 10 percent of the city where the jihadists had prepared for a last stand.
The SDF said the fighting was fierce Tuesday around the hospital and stadium, but their recapture was declared in quick succession, effectively ending IS's more than three-year military presence in the city.
Sello said an official statement announcing "the liberation of the city" would be made soon.
The anti-IS advance saw the recapture on Monday of the infamous Al-Naim traffic circle, which residents dubbed the "Roundabout of Hell" because the jihadists used it for public beheadings and crucifixions.
- 'IS collapsing' -
As the sun was setting over Raqa's west Monday, a group of fighters gathered for the dabkeh -- the jumpy line dance traditional in the Middle East -- to celebrate their native city's near-recapture.
Three months after Iraqi forces retook Iraq's Mosul, the largest city the jihadist group controlled, the loss of Raqa will be another nail in the coffin for IS's brutal experiment in statehood.
The breakthrough in the operation to retake Raqa, which was launched on June 6, came after a deal was struck allowing the evacuation in recent days of civilians who had been held as human shields.
Under the deal, a total of 275 Syrian IS fighters and relatives also surrendered to the SDF, though it was unclear whether they would be given safe passage elsewhere.
After IS captured Raqa in 2014, the city become synonymous with the jihadist group's worst abuses and was transformed into a planning centre for attacks abroad.
The jihadists also suffered setbacks Tuesday in the eastern Syrian region of Deir Ezzor, where Russian-backed regime forces retook swathes of territory, further reducing a "caliphate" that three years ago was roughly the size of Britain.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that regime forces had brought the entire area stretching between Deir Ezzor and Mayadeen, which was retaken on Saturday, under their control following a major military offensive.
"These are not desert areas, they are villages along the Euphrates (river) that were IS strongholds," the Britain-based monitoring group said.
"The Islamic State group is collapsing under pressure from the regime in Deir Ezzor province," it said.
IS also controls territory in neighbouring regions on the Iraqi side of the border, where they are facing another US-backed offensive by Iraqi pro-government forces.