'Final phase' of battle for Raqqa as IS fighters leave
October 15 2017 02:42 PM
Syria
A mother and a child sell foodstuff at a refugee camp for people displaced in fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Ain Issa, Syria on Saturday.

AFP/Ain Issa, Syria

US-backed forces announced the "final phase" of the battle to retake Syria's Raqqa on Sunday, after a group of foreign Islamic State group fighters left their one-time stronghold under an evacuation deal.
Raqqa was once the de facto Syrian capital of the jihadists' self-styled "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq, but IS now holds just 10% of the city.
On Sunday, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces militia that has been battling to oust IS from the city since entering it in June said the fight was now entering its endgame.
"We are now in the final phase of the battle for Raqqa," said Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF's Raqqa campaign.
The militia said in a statement 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."
The announcement comes after a deal brokered by local officials to evacuate IS fighters from the city.
The deal was announced on Saturday, with one senior local official telling AFP that both foreign and IS fighters would be leaving the city, possibly to remaining jihadist-held territory in neighbouring Deir Ezzor province.
'Fight or surrender'  
On Sunday, the official confirmed that a group of foreign fighters had departed.
"A portion of the foreigners have left," said Omar Alloush, a senior member of the local Raqqa Civil Council.
He could not confirm how many fighters had left, or where they had gone.
"They took civilians as human shields and left," he added. 
The exact details of the agreement have been murky, with the US-led coalition reporting Saturday that a convoy would be leaving Raqqa but adding that the agreement "purportedly excludes foreign Daesh (IS) terrorists."
On Sunday, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said he could not confirm any details on the departure of IS fighters.
But he reiterated the coalition's opposition to the departure of foreign fighters, and said that position had been shared with local officials.
"We're very adamant about not allowing foreign fighters to leave the city," he told AFP.
"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.
The SDF began its campaign to capture Raqqa last November, fighting for months to encircle the city before breaking into it in June.
IS captured Raqqa 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 Raqqa 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.



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