'Final phase' of battle for Raqa as civilians flee under deal

Maya Gebeily with Rouba El-Husseini in Beirut
1 / 4
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say they have begun the battle to capture the last 10 percent of Raqa under jihadist control

US-backed forces announced Sunday the "final phase" of the battle to retake Syria's Raqa, after the city was evacuated except for foreign Islamic State group fighters and their families.

More than 3,000 civilians fled Raqa on Saturday night under an evacuation deal that left just a few hundred foreign IS fighters and some of their relatives in the handful of positions they still hold in their one-time Syrian stronghold.

Commanders said the way was now clear for a final assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab militia alliance that broke into Raqa in June and has since captured 90 percent of the city.

SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the 3,000 civilians had evacuated to areas controlled by the SDF under a deal negotiated between local officials from the Raqa Civil Council and Syrian IS fighters.

"Raqa is now empty of civilians who had been taken as human shields," he said.

"Only 250 to 300 foreign terrorists who refused the deal and decided to stay and fight until the end remain in the city, and relatives of some members are with them," he said, without specifying the number of civilians.

Sello said a total of 275 Syrian IS fighters and family members had also left jihadist-held parts of the city and were with SDF fighters.

He declined to specify where those jihadists and their families would go.

With the deal's implementation, the SDF announced what it said was the last phase of the fight to capture the city.

- Contradictory reports -

"We are now in the final phase of the battle for Raqa," Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF's Raqa campaign, told AFP.

In a statement, the SDF said that the last phase of the fighting would "end the presence of the terrorist mercenaries inside the city".

"The battle... will continue until the entire city is cleared of terrorists who refuse to surrender, including foreign terrorists."

There had been speculation for days about a deal to allow the SDF to capture the last parts of the city while preventing further civilian casualties.

But there had been contradictory reports about whether the deal would allow foreign IS fighters to leave, something that has been strongly opposed by the US-led coalition supporting the SDF.

The Raqa Civil Council issued a statement Sunday afternoon denying that foreign IS fighters had been allowed to leave the city, after one of its members said "a portion of the foreigners have left."

The RCC said "for clarification and accuracy, the foreign Daesh (IS) are not at all the concern of the Raqa Civil Council and the tribal leaders and they cannot be pardoned."

"Those who have surrendered are only Syrians, and they number a total of 275 including their families."

The US-led coalition had on Saturday announced a convoy would leave the city, specifying that it would not include foreign IS fighters.

"We're very adamant about not allowing foreign fighters to leave the city," coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told AFP on Sunday.

- 'Surrender or fight' -

"Our stance was they either stay and fight or they surrender unconditionally."

"The last thing we want is foreign fighters to go free so they can return to their countries of origin and cause more terror and more havoc," he added.

But Dillon said local officials had not been asked for guarantees.

"This is a local solution," he said.

"While we may not fully agree with our partners sometimes, we have to respect their own solutions to their issues."

IS captured Raqa in 2014, and under its rule the city become synonymous with the jihadist group's worst abuses, and was transformed into a planning centre for attacks abroad.

The loss of Raqa would be only the latest blow for IS, which has suffered a string of setbacks in recent months.

It was driven from its largest Iraqi stronghold Mosul in July and now holds only a sliver of territory in the country.

In Syria, its presence is largely confined to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where it is under attack by both the SDF and a Russia-backed Syrian government campaign.

On Saturday, Syria's army seized the former IS stronghold of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor.

IS seized large parts of Syria in 2014, taking advantage of the chaos of the country's civil war that started three years earlier.

On Sunday, rebel shelling killed four civilians in Damascus, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor and a medical source said.

It came after a drop in violence in the capital since the implementation in July of a de-escalation zone in the rebel-held area of Eastern Ghouta to its east.