Syrian Islamic State fighters evacuate Raqqa city
AIN ISSA (Reuters) – A convoy of Islamic State fighters left Syria’s Raqqa with some civilians overnight, the US-backed militias fighting them said on Sunday, bringing the battle for their one-time capital near its end.
There were conflicting accounts of whether the evacuees included both Syrian and foreign fighters and it was unclear how many jihadists remained to mount a last stand in the city.
Raqqa’s fall to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, now looks imminent.
“We still expect there to be difficult fighting,” said Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led international coalition backing the SDF in the war against Islamic State.
Raqqa was the first big Syrian city to fall to Islamic State as it declared a “caliphate” and rampaged through Syria and Iraq in 2014, becoming an operations centre for attacks abroad and the stage for some of its darkest atrocities.
But Islamic State has been in retreat for two years, losing swathes of territory in both countries and forced back into an ever-diminishing foothold along the Euphrates river valley.
“Last night, the final batch of fighters (who had agreed to leave) left the city,” said Mostafa Bali, an SDF spokesman. The battle against those who remained continued, he said.
Bali said only Syrian Islamic State fighters had left in the convoy. But Omar Alloush, an official in the Raqqa Civil Council set up by the SDF’s allies to oversee the city, said some foreign fighters had also departed.
Neither said how many fighters had evacuated or how many remained in the tiny, bomb-cratered patch of Raqqa still held by Islamic State. Before the convoy left, the coalition estimated that about 300-400 fighters remained.
The convoy was heading to the remaining Islamic State territory in southeast Syria, Alloush said on Saturday.
The SDF’s decision to hasten the battle’s end by allowing Islamic State fighters to leave Raqqa was at odds with the stated wishes of the US-led coalition that backs the militias with air strikes and special forces.
Dillon said on Sunday it was not involved in the evacuation but added: “We may not always fully agree with our partners at times. But we have to respect their solutions.”
Bali described the civilians who left with Islamic State fighters in the convoy as human shields. He said the jihadists had refused to release them once they left the city as agreed, wanting to take them as far as their destination to guarantee their own safety.
On Saturday, Alloush had said about 400 civilians would be in the convoy. Such withdrawals of fighters along with groups of civilians have grown commonplace in Syria’s six-year war as a way for besieging forces to accelerate the fall of populated areas.
In previous evacuations, including by Islamic State, civilians who departed usually included family members of the fighters.