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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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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