US-backed Syrian force expects Raqqa victory in 'a few days'

AP News
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Posted: Oct 16, 2017 12:11 PM
US-backed Syrian force expects Raqqa victory in 'a few days'

BEIRUT (AP) — A U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force battling the Islamic State group in Syria will be in control of Raqqa "within a few days" after attacking the last militant-held pocket of the city, a spokesman for the force said Monday.

Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, also said that fierce street battles were underway near the main hospital in Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the extremists' self-proclaimed caliphate.

A Kurdish SDF commander said fighting ebbs and flows in order to allow the remaining civilians to leave the area. The U.S.-led coalition said there were no airstrikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours starting noon Sunday.

SDF fighters launched an operation to retake the last IS-held pocket of the city after some 275 militants and their family members surrendered over the weekend. The extremists still hold about 10 percent of Raqqa, including the hospital and the main stadium, which is believed to be used by the militants as a jail and an arms depot.

Activists said those who surrendered were taken to an SDF-run prison in the nearby town of Tabqa, where they are being interrogated before facing trial. Most of the remaining IS fighters in the city are believed to be foreigners.

"We believe that it will be all over within a few days," Bali said. "Those (Islamic State) fighters who are still inside will fight to the death."

Bali says SDF fighters are marching toward the hospital and the stadium under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

A senior Kurdish commander with SDF in Raqqa said that from Sunday night until the early hours Monday scores of civilians trickled out of the IS-held part of the city. The commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that more than 400 civilians have reached SDF fighters "and are now with us."

More civilians are still expected to arrive, he said, adding that 15 more IS fighters have surrendered.

"We know there are still groups of Daesh, specially the foreigners. We want to speed up the campaign, no more than two or three days," the commander said. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for IS.

The commander added that the SDF was searching for wanted foreign fighters sought by European and other countries. He said none had surrendered or were detained so far.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had previously reported that among the fighters remaining in Raqqa is a militant who planned attacks in France that killed and wounded dozens of people, saying he was a French or Belgian citizen of North African origin.

"We have told all our forces to be on the lookout," said the SDF commander, "We distributed pictures, so they can check if they (foreign fighters) are among the killed or wounded. We are looking into it. But we have no verification so far."

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces and their allies began a major offensive on IS-held neighborhoods in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, according to state TV and the Observatory.

The Observatory said government forces are pushing through two neighborhoods under the cover of airstrikes by Russian warplanes.

The move by government forces comes just two days after Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops captured the IS stronghold of Mayadeen, south of Deir el-Zour, in another blow to the extremists in eastern Syria.

The loss of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour would hand yet another major blow to IS, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi forces captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — the largest ever held by IS — in July, and Syria's Mayadeen, near the border with Iraq, was retaken by government forces on Saturday.

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.