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Civilians jubilant at their liberation from the clutches of IS
Raqqa's 'final' hours as capital of Islamic State
3 years after the Islamic State captured Syrian city of Raqqa and made it its capital, Kurdish forces announce its liberation is close at hand; thousands of civilians living under brutal Sharia reign of terror since 2014 flee front lines and collapse before their rescuers.

The US-backed Kurdish-led forces fighting Islamic State militants in Syria said on Saturday that they are waging the "final" battle to uproot the extremists from the northern city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the militant group.

 

 

Most of the city had already been cleared of Islamic State fighters, and the last remaining holdovers were now being subjugated.

 

Raqqa resident escapes into arms of Kurdish Peshmerga fighter
Raqqa resident escapes into arms of Kurdish Peshmerga fighter

 

This final battle could take hours or days, said Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

 

Exuberant civilians greetings their Kurdish liberators in Raqqa

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Losing Raqqa, in many ways the symbol of IS's so-called caliphate, 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.

 

IS militants are desperately fighting in a number of neighborhoods in the city, Bali said.

 

Photo: Reuters (Photo: Reuters)
Photo: Reuters

 

"They are still able to fight but they will no longer determine the fate of the battle," Bali said. "Our forces are waging the final phase of the battle of the presence of Daesh (IS) in Raqqa. We have not decided if this battle will last hours, days or weeks."

 

Over the past days, mediation efforts by local tribesmen and the local civil council have secured the release of a number of civilians from Raqqa. A local council official, Omar Alloush of the Raqqa Civilian Council, told The Associated Press on Friday that 100 IS fighters surrendered to US-backed forces.

 

Smoke billowing over the Raqqa municipal stadium (Photo: Reuters)
Smoke billowing over the Raqqa municipal stadium (Photo: Reuters)

 

US officials have said that only surrender, not a negotiated withdrawal for IS, would be accepted.

 

Hundreds of terrified civilians have been filmed fleeing toward the Syrian Democratic Forces from the last remaining neighborhoods held by IS in Raqqa ahead of the anticipated final battle for Raqqa between SDF and IS. Earlier this week, US officials said an estimated 4,000 civilians are believed still trapped in the city.

 

SDF fighter battling IS in Raqqa (Photo: Reuters)
SDF fighter battling IS in Raqqa (Photo: Reuters)

 

Militants seized Raqqa in 2014, the first city to fall under the full control of the extremist group. It has since become synonymous with IS's rule of terror in the region, with civilians punished in public killings over the slightest perceived offense—videotaped slayings that have shocked the rest of the world. It was also from Raqqa, which became a destination for foreign fighters from around the world, that many of IS attacks in the West were plotted.

 

The latest battle for Raqqa began in June, with heavy street-by-street fighting amid intense US-led coalition airstrikes and shelling. The battle has dragged on in the face of stiff resistance from the militants and civilians trapped in the city.

 

Man suspected of belonging to IS detained in Raqqa (Photo: Reuters)
Man suspected of belonging to IS detained in Raqqa (Photo: Reuters)

 

On Saturday, the SDF said they seized the al-Nahda neighborhood in Raqqa's western sector. A day earlier, IS carried out an offensive on SDF forces near the city's main hospital, an IS fortified headquarters.

 

SDF forces arriving at an abandoned house serving as IS base (Photo: Reuters)
SDF forces arriving at an abandoned house serving as IS base (Photo: Reuters)

 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group with activists on the ground, said negotiations over the fate of foreign fighters who remain in Raqqa have delayed the final push to regain control of the city.

 

SDF officials deny there are talks to evacuate IS fighters.

 

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