U.S.-backed SDF to let Syrian Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

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AIN ISSA, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Islamic State fighters are set to abandon Raqqa in a withdrawal agreed with U.S.-backed Syrian militias that have them surrounded, a militia spokesman said on Saturday, as the jihadists’ defeat in their former Syrian capital edged closer.

Officials gave conflicting accounts on whether foreign fighters would also be leaving the city, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been battling to defeat Islamic State since June.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo said the foreign fighters would be left behind “to surrender or die”, without saying when the evacuation of Syrian fighters would take place.

But Omar Alloush, a member of Raqqa’s Civil Council, said the evacuation would include foreign fighters. He said it would take place overnight into Sunday. The jihadists would be taking some 400 civilians with them as human shields, he said.

The final defeat of IS at Raqqa would be a milestone in efforts to roll back the theocratic “caliphate” the group declared in 2014 in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year it was driven from the city of Mosul.

IS used Raqqa as a base to plan attacks against the West.

The Kurdish YPG militia, which dominates the SDF, told Reuters earlier on Saturday that Islamic State was on the verge of defeat in Raqqa, and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists on Saturday or Sunday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said a convoy was due to leave Raqqa on Saturday, in an arrangement agreed by local parties. It described the arrangement as “a civilian evacuation” and said it would not condone any arrangement that allowed “terrorists to escape Raqqa without facing justice”.

Coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said the coalition’s stance was that IS fighters must surrender unconditionally, but added that he could not comment on who would be in the convoy. He said difficult fighting was expected in the days ahead.

The coalition statement said the arrangement brokered by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders on Oct. 12 was “designed to minimise civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists”.

The coalition believed the arrangement would “save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqa with less risk of civilian casualties”, it said.

Children play inside a truck at a refugee camp for people displaced because of fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Ain Issa, Syria October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Tribal leaders from Raqqa said the SDF had agreed to allow safe passage out of the city for Syrian Islamic State fighters still inside, and they were organising a “mechanism” for them to leave.

Its statement made no mention of the fate of Islamic State’s foreign jihadists, but said the remaining fighters in the city were only “a small number besieged in one or more positions in the city, who have no choice but surrender or death”.

Alloush earlier told Reuters that the IS fighters would go to remaining territory held by the group in Syria.

BUSES ARRIVE

Negotiated withdrawals of combatants facing defeat have become a common feature of the six-year-long Syrian war.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight Friday from the countryside to the north.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation that reports on the war, said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families.

The Syrian army, which is supported by Iran-backed militias and the Russian air force, declared another significant victory over Islamic State on Saturday, saying it had captured the town of al-Mayadin in Deir al-Zor province.

The eastern province is Islamic State’s last major foothold in Syria, and it is under attack there from the SDF on one side and Syrian government forces supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air strikes on the other.

Islamic State fighters had previously agreed to an evacuation last August, from an area on the Syrian-Lebanese border.

But as their convoy moved towards Islamic State-held territory in eastern Syria, coalition planes blocked its route by cratering roads, destroying bridges and attacking nearby Islamic State vehicles.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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About 4,000 civilians remain in IS-held Syrian city of Raqqa

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A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group says an estimated 4,000 civilians are still trapped in the Syrian city of Raqqa, once the extremists’ de facto capital, and that coalition allies are working out ways to evacuate them.

Col. Ryan Dillon says the Raqqa Civil Council, a local administration of Arab and Kurdish officials, is leading the discussions. It’s not clear with whom the council is speaking inside Raqqa.

Dillon said on Wednesday that the coalition wouldn’t accept a negotiated surrender of up to 400 militants believed holed up in the last part of the city that remains in IS hands.

Dillon says up to 15 militants have surrendered in the past three weeks in Raqqa. The battle for the city is in its final stages.

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Heavy civilian casualties in Raqqa from air strikes – U.N.

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GENEVA (Reuters) – Civilians caught up in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa are paying an “unacceptable price” and attacking forces may be contravening international law with their intense air strikes, the top United Nations human rights official said on Thursday.

A U.S.-led coalition is seeking to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, while Syrian government forces, backed by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias are also advancing on the city.

Some 20,000 civilians are trapped in Raqqa where the jihadist fighters are holding some of them as human shields, the world body says.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said that his office had documented 151 civilian deaths in six incidents alone in August, due to air strikes and ground-based attacks.

“Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the air strikes on Raqqa, coupled with ISIL’s use of civilians as human shields, I am deeply concerned that civilians – who should be protected at all times – are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle,” Zeid said in a statement.

“…the attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction, and proportionality,” he said.

The U.S.-led coalition has said it conducted nearly 1,100 air strikes on and near Raqqa this month, up from 645 in July, the U.N. statement said. Russia’s air force has reported carrying out 2,518 air strikes across Syria in the first three weeks of August, it added.

“Meanwhile ISIL fighters continue to prevent civilians from fleeing the area, although some manage to leave after paying large amounts of money to smugglers,” Zeid said. We have reports of smugglers also being publicly executed by ISIL.”

U.S.-led warplanes on Wednesday blocked a convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families from reaching territory the group holds in eastern Syria and struck some of their comrades travelling to meet them, a coalition spokesman said.

Reporting by Tom Miles; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Pritha Sarkar

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Exclusive – U.S.-backed Raqqa battle should end in two months, says senior SDF commander

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RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – The battle to oust Islamic State from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa should end within two months, a top-ranking Kurdish commander told Reuters, but said she expects the fighting to intensify.

Nowruz Ahmed sits on the military council of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and as one of a small number of members of its Raqqa general command is one of the most senior commanders in the offensive.

Islamic State has lost swathes of territory since 2015 in both Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, under separate attacks from a U.S.-led coalition and from the Russian-backed Syrian army, it is falling back on its strongholds along the Euphrates valley east of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the caliphate it declared in 2014.

“We cannot determine the time period in which the battle of Raqqa will end precisely because war has its conditions. But we do not expect it to last long, and according to our plans the battle will not take longer than two months from now,” Ahmed said.

The SDF alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias is fighting inside Raqqa’s city centre, with the help of air strikes and special forces from the U.S.-led coalition. They pushed into the city in June after battling for months to encircle it.

Ahmed said the SDF was focused on the Raqqa battle for now and had not yet set plans to launch an assault in Deir al-Zor province, which is further down the Euphrates towards the Iraqi frontier and remains almost entirely under IS control.

Ahmed, a women’s rights activist before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, heads the all female counterpart to the Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG is the most powerful component of the SDF, and the female unit has played a leading frontline role on the battlefield during the Raqqa campaign. She spoke to Reuters in Raqqa in what she said was her first interview with the media.

She estimated Islamic State had between 700 and 1,000 fighters left in Raqqa, mainly at the centre of the city. The SDF has encircled the militants and captured around 60 percent of the city.

The SDF had a solid core of about 15,000 fighters in the Raqqa offensive, Ahmed said. Before the fighting began late last year, it had over 50,000 forces and has continuously enrolled new ones, she added.

The presence of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 civilians besieged in Raqqa, including families of IS fighters from outside the city, has hampered the advance, said Ahmed.

Nowruz Ahmed, General Commander of the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) militia, the Kurdish People’s protection unit (YPG)’s all-female brigade, is pictured inside an operation room in Raqqa, Syria August 26, 2017.Rodi Said

“During our incursions, we try to open safe passages for them so they would not be a target of our attacks, but there are also many mines that led to the deaths of civilians,” she said.

Islamic State will fight until the end, and many of its remaining militants in Raqqa are foreign fighters who will carry out suicide attacks, Ahmed said.

The SDF and its allies have set up a civilian council to run Raqqa after Islamic State is defeated in the city. Ahmed said the SDF “has no plans to stay inside Raqqa after it is freed unless we are asked”.

Nowruz Ahmed, General Commander of the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) militia, the Kurdish People’s protection unit (YPG)’s all-female brigade, sits at an operation room in Raqqa, Syria August 26, 2017.Rodi Said

The major role of the Kurdish YPG in the battle for Raqqa, a mostly Arab city, is a point of sensitivity for many of the city’s former residents, according to activists from Raqqa. It is also sensitive for Turkey, a U.S. ally which fears expanded Kurdish influence along its border with Syria.

Ahmed said 60 percent of the SDF’s 50,000 fighters were Arab, 30 percent Kurdish, and 10 percent from other ethnic groups. The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition backing the SDF said earlier this month that there are 24,000 Arabs and 31,000 Kurds in the alliance.

Last week, the head of the Deir al-Zor military council, a part of the SDF, said an offensive to capture the eastern province of Deir al-Zor from Islamic State would start soon.

However, Ahmed said the SDF has no plans now to advance into the province because of the focus on Raqqa, and that a Deir al-Zor campaign had not been discussed with the U.S.-led coalition.

“There are demands for us to free Deir al-Zor and we are currently studying this,” she said, adding that the SDF had enough forces to capture the province.

The Syrian army and its allies are advancing eastwards through central Syria along several fronts in their own offensive towards Deir al-Zor, where a government enclave has been besieged by Islamic State for years.

“If the regime doesn’t attack us and make a target of us, we will not attack it,” Ahmed said.

Writing by Sarah Dadouch and Ellen Francis; Editing by Angus McDowall and Peter Graff

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Civilians under greater threat as Raqqa fight intensifies – Amnesty

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BEIRUT (Reuters) – Amnesty International said on Thursday a U.S.-led coalition campaign to oust Islamic State from Syria’s Raqqa had killed hundreds of civilians, and those remaining face greater risk as the fight intensifies in its final stages.

The rights group also said Russia-backed Syrian government forces had carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians, reported to have included cluster and barrel bombs, in a separate campaign against the militants south of Raqqa city.

“Civilians are … trapped in the city, under fire from all sides,” Amnesty said in a report.

It said the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes Arab and Kurdish militias, must take more care as they battle for the city’s central districts.

“It is imperative that all the parties to the conflict take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians, including ending the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated civilian areas, in compliance with the prohibition on indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.”

Islamic State (IS), which took over Raqqa and its environs in 2014, uses civilians inside the northern Syrian city as human shields and targets those trying to escape with snipers and mines, Amnesty said.

“IS wouldn’t let us leave. We had no food, no electricity,” a former Raqqa resident told Amnesty, one of 98 displaced individuals it spoke to in northern Syria.

COUNTING THE DEAD

It is difficult to establish how many people have died in the battle for Raqqa.

People interviewed by Reuters displaced by the fighting said air and artillery strikes have killed civilians, and Reuters reporters have seen massive material damage to buildings and infrastructure as they visit recaptured areas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s war through a network of on-the-ground contacts, said between June 5 and Wednesday it had documented the deaths of 789 civilians, 200 of them children, in Raqqa city as a result of bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition and SDF.

Monitoring group Airwars told Reuters they believe between 725 and 993 civilians have likely been killed from coalition actions in Raqqa city since the offensive began in early June.

Hundreds more civilians have reportedly died after being fired on by Islamic State or being caught in their minefields, Airwars Director Chris Woods said.

“Coalition forces have listed 16 reports of alleged casualties in or near Raqqa between 6 and 30 June, dismissing three as ‘non-credible’, while 13 others are pending assessment,” Amnesty said.

It called on the coalition to establish a more transparent and independent reporting procedure.

The coalition says it is very careful to avoid civilian casualties in its bombing runs against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, and investigates any allegations.

FILE PHOTO:Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria August 15, 2017.Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

The coalition was unable to provide more recent statistics when contacted by Reuters.

NOWHERE TO RUN

Amnesty criticised the U.S.-led campaign for artillery and air strikes on areas containing civilians and asked for an end to attacks that risk being indiscriminate.

“Whether you live or die depends on luck because you don’t know where the next shell will strike, so you don’t know where to run,” former Raqqa resident Mohammed told Amnesty.

Syrian government forces, backed by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias, have also been advancing against IS south of the River Euphrates that forms Raqqa city’s southern edge.

Amnesty said residents had told it that air strikes had hit camps where people had fled the fighting.

Amnesty said the testimonials they collected suggested cluster bombs had been used in some of the attacks.

Russia and Syria say they only target militants.

Neither Russia, Syria nor the United States are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but international humanitarian law prohibits indiscriminate attacks against civilians.

Amnesty urged the international community to urgently increase aid for fleeing civilians.

INTENSIFYING BATTLE

There has been a recent increase in the number of coalition air strikes on Raqqa.

Lieutenant General Steve Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, said Raqqa was now the coalition’s priority following the recapture of Iraq’s Mosul from IS last month.

“The fight has now entered into the very hardest parts of the city.  And so our partners are needing greater assistance,” Townsend told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Townsend said it was logical to assume there had been “some increase” in civilian casualties as a result of increased strikes, but that he had seen no hard evidence that casualties had increased significantly.

The United Nations says at least 200,000 people have fled Raqqa in recent months, and that up to 20,000 civilians remain trapped inside.

Islamic State is on the back foot in both Syria and Iraq. The U.S.-backed SDF have captured swathes of its territory in northern Syria and Russia-backed Syrian government forces are making rapid advances in the central desert area.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; editing by Mark Heinrich

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Raqqa families make daring escapes from Islamic State stronghold

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RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – As Shawakh al-Omar huddled with 16 relatives in a single room in house in Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold Raqqa, a mortar round slammed into the home next door, killing four people and shaking the building.

The 57-year-old decided they should make a run for it.

“We didn’t even have time to bury the neighbours’ bodies, we just left,” he said, sitting with daughters and grandchildren on dusty ground at a displaced people’s camp near the town of Tabqa, nearly 50 km (30 miles) west, a day later.

Omar said the family was joined by almost the entire neighbourhood, who decided to flee at the same time during the night as fighting between the militants and U.S.-backed forces intensified.

“When we got to the main road, bullets from Islamic State militants started flying by — they were trying to stop us leaving. The Syrian Democratic Forces started firing back, so we managed to run to SDF territory,” he said.

The family is one of hundreds who have made daring escapes from IS militants inside Raqqa as the U.S.-backed SDF closes in on the group in the city centre.

Thousands of people have had to move many times even after fleeing to Raqqa’s outskirts as the jihadists counter-attack and raid nearby, and the U.S.-led coalition’s bombardments continue.

Many try to camp out near Raqqa before heading reluctantly for camps where the Red Cross describes “inhumane living conditions”, including lack of clean water and insufficient medical services. The United Nations says at least 200,000 people have fled Raqqa in recent months, and that up to 20,000 civilians remain trapped inside.

Another family, squatting in a home in the city’s western outskirts, described their escape by boat across the Euphrates River that runs south of the city several weeks ago, after the final assault in a months-old offensive to seize Raqqa from IS began.

“The whole neighbourhood decided to flee together, I’m talking hundreds of people,” Abdul Hassan Ibrahim said in Sbahiya neighbourhood.

“Many got into boats or swam across the river — we were 10 in a small boat, and had to cling onto the sides and duck underwater to avoid the bullets” being fired by militants, he said.

His 10-year-old son imitated the whizzing sound the rounds had made as they shot over the boat.

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 20, 2017.Zohra Bensemra

RAIDS AND DRONE BOMBS

Both families were relieved, but their ordeal is not over. Omar, who lives in a tent on the edge of their camp, still has to make a final journey to a relative’s home outside Tabqa.

Ibrahim, as he spoke, was asked by SDF fighters to leave their temporary home — the third time they had moved since fleeing — because of ongoing fighting nearby.

“Where shall we go? I’m running out of ideas,” Ibrahim said, scratching his head as an air strike sent debris flying into the air a short distance away in central Raqqa.

Damaged buildings are pictured during the fighting with Islamic State’s fighters in the old city of Raqqa, Syria, August 19, 2017.Zohra Bensemra

Islamic State fighters have launched attacks even away from frontlines and left many homes booby-trapped, said SDF fighters in Sbahiya, the area where Ibrahim’s family was sheltering.

“It’s still dangerous here — there are snipers and houses are rigged with explosives,” SDF intelligence official Abdullah Matar said. “We advise families to move on as soon as possible.”

Matar said IS drones had dropped explosives in the area in recent days, a tactic often used against U.S.-backed forces.

“Some local fighters will try to leave among the civilian population. They’ve often hidden weapons in buildings on the edges of the city, which they come back for.”

Militants raided a checkpoint several nights before in nearby Qahtaniya village, he said.

Air strikes have killed many civilians, war monitors and residents say, but people who have escaped say there are far fewer than the U.N. estimate of 20,000 people left.

Those who fled expect to remain homeless as the fight continues, destroying homes and making Syrians desperate.

“My own aunt asked for rent for us to stay with her,” Ibrahim said. “We’ve no mercy anymore.”

Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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Arab fighters struggle to assert role in Raqqa assault

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RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – The inexperienced fighters in an Arab group battling to take Raqqa back from Islamic State are playing a secondary role to hardened Kurdish militia in the campaign for their home city.

The performance of one lightly trained group seen by Reuters in Raqqa underscored the difficulty of making Arabs the “vanguard” in the battle for the mostly Arab city, as the United States said last year they would be.

In one recent incident, the fighters were quick to open fire after stray bullets flew above their makeshift compound.

“Cease fire! Can you even see what you’re shooting at? Our comrades are somewhere up ahead!” their 27-year-old commander Hassan Khalil shouted to his fighters in the Foj al-Raqqa (Raqqa Regiment).

Meanwhile, Reuters reporters covering the Raqqa assault have watched the Kurdish YPG militia take the most visible role.

It is a sensitive point both for Syrian Arabs and for neighbouring Turkey, which is fighting a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast and has unsuccessfully lobbied Washington to abandon its alliance with the YPG.

Turkey opposes the YPG’s role in the operation, saying it threatens to change the demographics of Raqqa. But in March the new U.S. administration started distributing arms to the YPG ahead of a final assault.

The ragtag, 300-strong Foj al-Raqqa appears to have a more minor role. They are among the myriad militias swelling the ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, formed in 2015 to fight IS.

“We’re proud to be SDF. We hope Arab forces will become as strong as the YPG,” Khalil said at Foj al-Raqqa’s makeshift base near the front line last week. A live booby-trapped bomb rigged by Islamic State militants still lay on their kitchen floor.

A YPG commander at a nearby house said the new recruits were inexperienced but useful. “They’re keen to fight, and they know the area so it’s good for intelligence,” Haval Qahraman said.

SDF spokesman Mostafa Bali said Foj al-Raqqa was made up of men from the city. But in a sign of its subsidiary role, two other senior SDF officials in the alliance’s office in the town of Ain Issa said they had not heard of the group.

Arab fighters hope for a long-term role in Raqqa’s security. But Foj al-Raqqa’s future is uncertain – governance and security arrangements in Raqqa have not been finalised as the fight to capture the city rages.

Another YPG commander said last week that the SDF had surrounded IS in central Raqqa, but predicted that the battle could last up to four more months.

In other areas taken by the alliance, such as the town of Manbij, security was handed over to mostly local forces who formed military councils that remained attached to the SDF.

Whether Foj al-Raqqa will receive further training and play that role is unclear. For now, it focuses on the fighting. “Our goal and that of our comrades is the same – finishing off Daesh,” Khalil said, using a pejorative term for Islamic State.

NATIVE TO RAQQA

U.S. coalition forces have trained more than 5,000 Arab fighters since the Raqqa campaign began in November, spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said. The current number of Arabs in the SDF is around 24,000 with 31,000 Kurds, he told Reuters.

Foj al-Raqqa wore SDF patches on their clothes. Many others wear the patches of their own militia – often the YPG. A senior U.S. general recently equated the SDF with the YPG, saying the SDF formed after Washington advised the YPG to change its brand.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces walk at their position, during the fighting with Islamic State’s fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa, Syria August 16, 2017.Zohra Bensemra

A YPG commander acknowledged that the Kurdish militia was playing a leading role in Raqqa, but played up the part played by the Arab forces, saying it showed there was no ethnic approach in the operation.

Foj al-Raqqa is new and made up of men native to Raqqa who fled the city during the SDF’s offensive in recent months.

Its fighters were given a crash course in weapons training by the U.S.-led coalition, which also backs the assault on Raqqa with special forces and air strikes.

U.S. TRAINING, SOVIET WEAPONS

The fighters, many around 20 years old, showed videos on their phones of skirmishes. In one, they tried in vain to shoot down an IS drone. Another showed them attacking a sniper position using a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Khalil’s second-in-command, Mohammed Hawi, described a 23-day training U.S. forces gave them at a camp in northern Syria after security vetting.

“They taught us how to fire AK47s, Doshka heavy machine guns, BKC light machine guns,” all Soviet-made weapons.

“We learned how to spot booby traps. They filled a room with mock bombs and we’d have to identify them. One mistake and an alarm went off.”

The training has likely saved their lives: they had been able to identify the booby trap in the kitchen – a small white box with electrical wires protruding – as an improvised explosive device (IED).

“IS had three years to rig Raqqa. It’s full of explosives,” Hawi said.

Khalil’s unit has about 50 fighters, all from districts around Raqqa’s Old City walls.

Each had personal reasons for joining.

Alaa Saeed, a slight 20-year-old, had watched militants behead his cousin when IS was at the peak of its rule three years ago.

Despite IS’s brutality, the fighters said they would not take revenge in kind.

“If we cut IS fighters’ throats, we’re no better than them. Better to capture them and let them face justice,” Khalil said.

Asked what they expected the unit’s future to be, the fighters were unsure.

“Of course we want to help run the city and region,” Hawi said.

“Our ambitions right now are to destroy Daesh.”

Reporting by John Davison, additional reporting by Hamuda Hassan and Dominic Evans in Istanbul, editing by Alister Doyle

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Militants trapped in Raqqa centre but Syrian Kurd commander sees long battle

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RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed forces now have Islamic State fighters surrounded in central Raqqa, a Syrian Kurdish commander said, but he predicted that driving the militants out could take up to four months.

“We’ve cleared about half of Old Raqqa … and we’re advancing on all axes,” said Haval Gabar, the 25-year-old commander from the Kurdish YPG militia who is directing the assault on the Old City front in Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold.

Units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance dominated by the YPG, fully linked up in Raqqa’s southern districts on Tuesday, encircling the militants in the city centre which includes the Old City,

“The day before yesterday there was still a small gap,” Gabar said on Wednesday. “Yesterday it was closed. We are now pressing towards Mansour and Rashid districts.”

From his command post, a former Syrian government police headquarters overlooking the Old City walls, Gabar hunched over maps and radioed orders to YPG units 400 metres (yards) ahead in the densely-built city centre.

As he spoke, the sound of machine gun fire barked over his walkie-talkie while air strikes staged by the U.S.-led coalition slammed into targets nearby.

The SDF, backed by the air strikes and coalition special forces, have been fighting since June to clear Islamic State from Raqqa city, its de facto Syrian capital. A separate campaign drove the group from its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul last month.

However, the multi-phased Raqqa offensive began already in November, capturing surrounding towns and villages, encircling the city and cutting off Islamic State from the north, east and west.

But the advances are proceeding cautiously, officials say, as Islamic State uses snipers, car bombs and booby traps, and forbids civilians to leave, prolonging the effort to flush the jihadists out.

Initial predictions by the YPG that the Raqqa battle would be over in a matter of weeks were wrong.

“It could take another three to four months to finish Raqqa,” Gabar said. The SDF was advancing steadily, but he added: “They’ve laid many mines, that’s one of the biggest difficulties. As for car bombs, they don’t use them every day, but if our forces are advancing down a street, then they deploy them.”

As he spoke, a huge blast shook the building, and a plume of smoke rose from inside the Old City – a car bomb had been hit by an air strike.

The radio crackled with reports of SDF casualties. A medic working at the command post, who gave her name as Jiyan, did not give a figure for the number of wounded being brought in, but said it was lower than in some previous battles.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces widens the hole in the wall during the fighting with Islamic State in Al Senaa, a district of Raqqa, Syria, August 10, 2017.Zohra Bensemra

“There are not as many fighters being killed and wounded as last year in Manbij,” she said, referring to the town northwest of Raqqa captured by the SDF last year.

CHECHEN SNIPERS

SDF spokesman Talal Selo said on Tuesday that mines were slowing movement even where Islamic State – known by its opponents as Daesh – had withdrawn.

“In the northern area there is no Daesh presence, but at the same time our forces are not getting closer in because Daesh has rigged these areas with enormous amounts of explosives and mines,” he said.

The further forces advance into Raqqa, the tougher it has become, fighters in Gabar’s unit and other SDF militias said. Militants from the Russian region of Chechnya were particularly deadly.

“There are many snipers. They’re good, especially the Chechens,” YPG fighter Adel, 20, said, pointing at small holes in the walls of the police headquarters that the militants had used to shoot from when they held the building.

Through large open windows in the command post, some barricaded with tables to shield the unit from sniper fire, the ancient mud-brick Old City walls were visible, including one point where the SDF breached them to get through.

Gabar said that despite resistance, several hundred militants had surrendered themselves, and estimates not more than 1,000 are left. He believes their morale “is zero”.

“Maybe 600 Daesh have surrendered. It’s mostly foreign fighters left in the city now. Those with families tend to be the ones to hand themselves over.”

A handful of civilians have trickled out of the city each day, but most cannot leave. Up to 50,000 civilians are trapped inside, the United Nations says.

The U.S. coalition and its allies say they take care to avoid civilian casualties, another reason for advancing cautiously. Many buildings around the command post were reduced to rubble.

The U.N. says coalition air strikes have killed at least 300 civilians in Raqqa since March.

The SDF are keen to finish the battle. “We’ll be done soon,” said a YPG fighter. “We kill 10 to 15 Daesh a day.”

(The story is refiled to clarify commander’s role in second paragraph.)

Reporting by John Davison; editing by David Stamp

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Women recruits prepare to join Syria’s Raqqa battle

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HASAKA, Syria (Reuters) – Women fighters danced to Kurdish songs in a village in northern Syria on Wednesday after completing their military training to join the battle against Islamic State.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of local militias supported by a U.S.-led coalition, had given the 210 women a 15-day course in armed combat.

Trainers taught the women weapons handling, tactics and first aid.

“The goal … is to stand up against Daesh, to stand up to them and tell them that the woman is strong,” said new recruit Layla Hussein, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the SDF spokeswoman for the Raqqa campaign, said the women would be mainly deployed to the battlefront against Islamic State in Raqqa.

Another course will start in two months, she added, and there will be more as the demand continues.

Hussein said her training had included ideology sessions.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighters dance during a graduation ceremony in the city of Hasaka, northeastern Syria, August 9, 2017.Rodi Said

The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, which follows the leftist ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.

The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition initially said all the women who had been trained in that group were Arab but later said it was checking that information. A witness to the ceremony said some of the new fighters were Kurdish.

“Since the beginning of the revolution and continuing on until now, the main casualties of war have been women,” said Sarya Mahmoud, a trainer and commander in the YPJ, the all-female brigade in the YPG.

The female fighters give hope to women in the towns they liberate, Mahmoud said, “because we’re going to free them and give them the volition they lost years ago, not just from Daesh, but from the male mentality and the government mentality.”

The new SDF fighters came from different parts of northern Syria, including Deir al-Zor, Raqqa, and Aleppo, and will be deployed directly to Raqqa, where the SDF launched a campaign to seize the city from Islamic State forces in early June.

Islamic State has lost large expanses of territory in Syria over the last year to separate campaigns waged by the SDF, the Russian-backed Syrian military, and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels.

(This story corrects paragraph 9 after U.S.-led coalition said it was checking information it had previously supplied that all the women trained were Arab.)

Reporting by Rodi Said; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Angus McDowall and Andrew Bolton

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Syrian army takes more oil fields from Islamic State in Raqqa and eastern desert

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BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army backed by heavy Russian air strikes seized a string of oil wells in southwest Raqqa province on Saturday, as retreating Islamic State militants battle to defend their remaining territory in the country.

State-owned Ikhbariyah television quoted a military source as saying the army had taken control of Wahab, al Fahd, Dbaysan, al-Qseer, Abu al Qatat and Abu Qatash oil fields and several other villages in the desert area that lies in the southwest of Raqqa province.

The seized oil fields lie south of the town of Rasafa and its oil wells, which the army took last month from the militants in their first major territorial gains inside the province.

The army and Iranian-backed militias have in the last few months been advancing east of Aleppo city and seizing swathes of territory west of the Euphrates River that militants have pulled out of to defend their de facto capital of Raqqa, where they are now battling U.S.-backed troops inside the city.

The latest gains tighten the army’s grip on a bulge of territory stretching from eastern Hama province to eastern Homs and the edge of Raqqa and Deir Zor provinces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

The monitor said the Russian air force intensified its strikes on several targets and towns held by the militants in the area including Uqairbat, a target of Russian cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean at the end of May.

The army’s next goal is to retake the town of Sukhna, a gateway to the eastern province of Deir Zor that borders Iraq and likely to be the militants’ last major bastion in Syria if Raqqa falls.

The army and its Iranian-backed allies have also announced in the last few days steady gains in the desert northeast of the ancient city of Palmyra with their capture of the Hail gas field that brought them almost 18 kms south of Sukhna.

Heavy fighting has however continued in the last 48 hours near Hail and the nearby Arak gas field that the Syrian army took last month, both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and jihadist websites said.

The army and Iranian-backed militias have been engaged in a campaign since May to fill the void left by the retreat of militants in areas they once controlled in the vast eastern Syrian desert that stretches all the way from central Syria to the south eastern border with Iraq and Jordan.

In the southeastern desert, heavy fighting continued between the army and its Iranian backed allies on one side and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels in the rugged eastern countryside of the city of Sweida in southern Syria.

The army said it had captured most of these areas that are also near the border with Jordan, while the rebels said they had inflicted losses on Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group and Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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