Syria’s Raqqa totally free from IS — terrorists left the city, monitor

AFP news agency, Al Jazeera, Agencies

Syria’s Raqqa totally free from Islamic State (IS, ISIS/ISIL) group — terrorists left the city, monitor said on Saturday. All Syrian fighters of the Islamic State group have left the jihadists’ one-time bastion of Raqqa and preparations are under way for foreign combatants to leave, a monitor said Saturday.

Coalition confirms that the foreign ISIS fighters are forbidden to leave Raqqa.

Syrian Observatory said buses coming to city of Raqqa to evacuate remaining ISIS gunmen and their families.

The jihadists left Raqa with their families, heading to unknown destinations, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“All Syrian fighters from the Islamic State group left Raqa over the past five days,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman, saying they numbered around 200 fighters.

A Raqqa official told AFP on Saturday that Syrian IS members had surrendered overnight to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces battling to take full control of the city, without specifying how many.

“Those that surrendered are local, not foreigners — the foreigners have not handed themselves in yet,” the official said.

“They sent a message to the Raqqa Civil Council and to the tribal mediators.”

Members of the RCC — a provisional administration for the city set up by the SDF — had been working with tribal leaders throughout the week to try to secure safe passage for civilians.

Hundreds of civilians have managed to flee the battle-ravaged city, which once served as the de facto Syrian capital of the jihadist group.

According to Abdel Rahman, up to 150 foreign jihadists remain in the city and negotiations on their fate are still ongoing.

“The foreign fighters are asking to leave in one group towards areas under IS control in Deir Ezzor province,” in eastern Syria, he said.

But a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which spearhead the SDF, denied on Saturday that any discussions were taking place for the surrender of the city.

“We completely deny any negotiations or deal for the exit of Daesh. Until this very moment, we are fighting Daesh,” Nuri Mahmoud told AFP.

Backed by US-led coalition air strikes, the SDF’s Arab and Kurdish fighters have recaptured around 90 percent of Raqa from IS.

Earlier the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said, Islamic State (IS, ISIS/ISIL) group is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the group’s fighters on Saturday or Sunday.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters news agency by telephone.

The YPG dominates the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias that has been battling since June to defeat ISIL at Raqqa, which served as the group’s de facto capital in Syria.

Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Antakya in Turkey, said on about seven percent of the city was still under control of ISIL on Saturday.

“Thousands of people have been trapped in those areas. Many are now being evacuated, thousands are fleeing, ending up in refugee camps. These camps lack basic infrastructure and services, and a cold winter is just a few weeks ahead,” Ahelbarra said.

“It’s a very difficult situation for so many.”