Evacuation deal for Syria's Raqa as city's capture nears

Maya Gebeily with Rouba El-Husseini in Beirut
Much of Syria's Raqa has been reduced to ruins by heavy bombardment that has rendered whole streets unrecognisable

Foreign and Syrian jihadists from the Islamic State group are to evacuate their former stronghold of Raqa, as US-backed forces near the capture of the city, a senior official said Saturday.

Omar Alloush, a senior member of the local Raqa Civil Council, told AFP the deal would see IS fighters either turn themselves in or leave on buses, possibly to neighbouring Deir Ezzor province.

The news of an evacuation of IS fighters came shortly after the US-led coalition backing the assault on the city announced a convoy would leave Raqa in a deal to minimise new civilian casualties.

But the coalition specifically ruled out the exit of foreign IS fighters while making no mention of local fighters, and warned against any deal that allowed jihadists safe passage without "facing justice".

Once the de facto Syrian capital of IS's self-styled "caliphate," most of Raqa is now held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

In recent days, fighting dropped off as local officials tried to negotiate a way to secure the last 10 percent of the city held by IS while preventing further civilian casualties.

Local tribal leaders issued a statement late Saturday saying they had urged the SDF and US-led coalition to find a way to "settle the status" of Syrian jihadists in the city and "secure their exit".

"The Syrian Democratic Forces agreed. We are now preparing a mechanism to evacuate (them)... to protect the lives of civilians who were taken as human shields," the statement added.

"We as tribal leaders guarantee the lives of those who will be taken out."

Alloush said up to 500 Syrian and foreign-born jihadists remained in Raqa.

"They have 400 hostages with them -- women and children -- in the national hospital," he told AFP.

He confirmed foreign IS fighters are "included in the deal" to evacuate jihadists.

"The foreign fighters have two choices: either surrender or be taken out" of the city, Alloush told AFP, saying it was "possible" they would be taken to Deir Ezzor, an eastern Syrian province where IS still holds territory.

- Raqa 'on verge' of capture -

The US-led coalition backing the SDF earlier announced a convoy would leave Raqa on Saturday under a deal negotiated by local officials.

"The arrangement is designed to minimise civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists as people trapped in the city continue to flee the impending fall of Daesh's so-called capital," the coalition said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

"People departing Raqa under the arrangement are subject to search and screening by Syrian Democratic Forces," it added.

It had earlier insisted that "foreign fighters are not being allowed to leave Raqa", and cautioned that it still expected "difficult fighting in the days ahead".

Deals to allow IS fighters to withdraw from territory have been negotiated in the past, including in May when an agreement allowed several dozen jihadists to flee the town of Tabqa, west of Raqa.

IS captured Raqa in 2014, and the city has become synonymous with the worst of the group's abuses, and infamous as a centre for planning attacks abroad.

Since breaking into Raqa in June, the SDF has captured around 90 percent of the city, backed by heavy US-led coalition strikes that have rendered whole streets unrecognisable and killed scores of civilians.

"Daesh is on the verge of being finished in Raqa in the coming days," said Nuri Mahmud, a spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units that form the SDF's backbone.

The loss of Raqa would be only the latest in a series of devastating blows to IS, which earlier this year ceded the Iraqi city of Mosul.

The group now holds just a sliver of territory in Iraq, and is under attack from two separate campaigns by the SDF and Syrian army in Deir Ezzor province.

On Saturday, Syria's army seized the former IS stronghold of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor, in a campaign that is backed by President Bashar al-Assad's ally Russia.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.