The last remaining ISIS fighters in Raqqa, once the terrorist group’s de facto capital, are expected to leave the city on Saturday night, taking civilians with them as human shields, according to agencies in Syria.
In a withdrawal agreed with U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that have them surrounded, Syrian ISIS fighters will leave the city on Saturday evening.
Omar Alloush, a senior official of the Raqqa Civil Council, told Agence France-Presse that foreign fighters would also be leaving the city, where the SDF has been battling to defeat ISIS since June.
“The foreign fighters have two choices: either surrender or be taken out” of the city, Alloush said, saying it was possible they would be taken to Deir Ezzor, an area in eastern Syria where ISIS still holds territory.
According to Alloush, up to 500 fighters including both Syrian and foreign-born jihadists remain in Raqqa. Coalition sources put the number lower at 300-400 fighters. The coalition estimated earlier this week that 300 to 400 militants remained in the city. On Friday, a local official said an estimated about 100 militants had surrendered.
“They [ISIS] have 400 hostages with them – women and children – in the national hospital,” Alloush told AFP.
The final defeat of the Islamic State in Raqqa would be yet another blow to the militant group and its reign of terror in the region as its strongholds crumble one after another in Iraq and other parts of Syria. Earlier this year, ISIS was driven from the city of Mosul.
The U.S. coalition said about 85% of Raqqa was now controlled by the SDF.
SDF has steadily been making a bid for areas in the province, securing territory to the east of the river as the U.S.-backed offensive focused on the Iraq border area, still controlled by ISIS.
Washington fears further advances by Syrian government forces could help Iran, which backs militias fighting alongside the Syrian military, expand its influence across the region by securing a land route extending from from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, all the way to Israel.
Syrian government forces and their allies on Saturday said they seized the town of Mayadeen, an Islamic State stronghold in the country’s east, which leaves ISIS militants strangled in the city of Deir el-Zour, cutting their supply route from the south and the desert.
With ISIS under fire in Deir el-Zour and Raqqa, the only remaining urban stronghold still in the militants’ hand is Boukamal, a strategic border town that had linked ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq.
Scores of civilians were seen in a video that surfaced Friday leaving Raqqa in desperate and terrified condition. They emerged from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrive to a Kurdish-held area of the city, in haunting scenes reflecting their years-old ordeal. Earlier this week, U.S. officials said an estimated 4,000 civilians are believed still trapped in the city.
The city, once a symbol of ISIS’s power and a backdrop to macabre executions posted on social media, is now in ruins and littered with mines and boobytraps. Senior members of the group have long fled.
Still, the U.S.-led coalition said it expects “difficult fighting” in the days ahead to completely oust IS from the city and secure it. SDF and U.S. officials said the remaining militants are mostly suicide bombers who only have small arms and rifles. With a small area remaining, they have no access to their weapon of choice, car bombs, said Bali, the SDF spokesman.
“Our forces are waging the final phase of the battle of the presence of ‘Daesh’ in Raqqa. We have not decided if this battle will last hours, days or weeks,” Bali said, using the Arabic name for ISIS.
Militants seized Raqqa in 2014, the first city to fall under the full control of the extremist group. It became synonymous with ISIS’ reign of terror, and Raqqa also became a destination for foreign fighters from around the world.
The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS said a convoy was due to leave Raqqa on Saturday, in an arrangement described as “a civilian evacuation” and agreed by local parties.
ISIS has finally nearly completely fallen. Evil will not prevail!