Islamic State 'Toughest fighting yet' to oust group from Syria's Raqa

Intermittent artillery fire rang out and thick columns of smoke rose above the devastated city as US-led coalition air strikes targeted remaining jihadists...

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Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take a position inside a building on the eastern frontline of Raqa on October 5, 2017 play

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take a position inside a building on the eastern frontline of Raqa on October 5, 2017

(AFP)
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The US-backed force fighting to oust the Islamic State group from its former Syrian stronghold Raqa said Monday it was waging its "toughest battles yet", as the city's capture neared.

Intermittent artillery fire rang out and thick columns of smoke rose above the devastated city as US-led coalition air strikes targeted remaining jihadists in a handful of last positions.

An alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces, broke into Raqa in June and is poised to seize the last 10 percent of the city after a weekend deal to evacuate civilians.

"The Syrian Democratic Forces are currently waging their toughest battles yet," Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the operation to capture the city, told AFP.

The latest fighting "will bring an end to Daesh's presence," she added, using the Arabic acronym for IS. "They can choose between surrendering and dying."

An estimated 300 mostly foreign IS fighters are surrounded, mostly in central parts of the city, but are expected to make a fierce last stand.

Map illustrating the advance by Arab-Kurdish forces against the Islamic State group in Raqa, Syria play

Map illustrating the advance by Arab-Kurdish forces against the Islamic State group in Raqa, Syria

(AFP)

"The IS elements that are still there are resisting," Sheikh Ahmed said, adding that the neighbourhoods where fighting is under way "are fortified and heavily mined areas."

Overnight, SDF fighters captured the northern Al-Barid neighbourhood, and their efforts would focus Monday on several adjacent districts, she added.

Inside the city, an AFP reporter saw heavy destruction around the national hospital, one of IS's key remaining positions, though the complex's observation tower was still standing.

'Final phase'

"Our forces are clearing the area, we haven't entered the hospital yet," 22-year-old SDF fighter Shoresh Halab said.

"At the moment there are no offensive operations against us," he added.

"After the evacuation of civilians, the operation has become easier for us. Daesh was taking the civilians and putting them in front so the planes wouldn't hit them."

On Sunday, the SDF announced the "final phase" of the battle for the city, with a resumption of fighting after a pause to negotiate the safe exit of civilians and the surrender of some IS fighters.

In a statement, the militia said that the last phase of the fighting would "end the presence of the terrorist mercenaries inside the city".

"The battle... will continue until the entire city is cleared of terrorists who refuse to surrender, including foreign terrorists."

Syrian women and children gather on the western front after fleeing the centre of Raqa on October 12, 2017 play

Syrian women and children gather on the western front after fleeing the centre of Raqa on October 12, 2017

(AFP/File)

SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP on Sunday that the city was virtually empty of civilians after 3,000 left Saturday as part of a deal agreed between local officials and Syrian IS fighters.

"Only 250 to 300 foreign terrorists who refused the deal and decided to stay and fight until the end remain in the city, and relatives of some members are with them," he said, without specifying the number of civilians.

Under the deal, a total of 275 Syrian IS fighters and relatives surrendered to the SDF, though it was unclear whether they would be given safe passage elsewhere.

'Difficult' fighting left

There had been speculation for days about a deal to allow the SDF to capture the last parts of the city while preventing further civilian casualties.

But there were contradictory reports about whether the deal would allow foreign IS fighters to leave, something that has been strongly opposed by the US-led coalition supporting the SDF.

A spokesman for the coalition said Monday that its strikes had been on hold during talks on the deal, but would now resume.

"Now that that arrangement is complete and the SDF are going to resume their offensive into the city I certainly expect that strikes will increase," Colonel Ryan Dillon told AFP.

But he declined to speculate how quickly the city could now fall.

"We still expect that the fight in this final piece is going to be difficult," he said.

"We're not putting a timeline on it."

IS captured Raqa in 2014. Under its rule the city become synonymous with the jihadist group's worst abuses and was transformed into a planning centre for attacks abroad.

The city's recapture would be only the latest blow for IS, which has suffered a string of setbacks in recent months.

It was driven from its largest Iraqi stronghold Mosul in July and now only controls a fraction of the self-styled "caliphate" it proclaimed more than three years ago, which once covered territory roughly the size of Britain.

In Syria, its presence is largely confined to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where it is under attack by both the SDF and a Russia-backed Syrian government campaign.

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