Fighters in Syria's Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

2017-10-20 12:56
This frame grab made from drone video shows damaged buildings in Raqqa. (Gabriel Chaim, AP)

This frame grab made from drone video shows damaged buildings in Raqqa. (Gabriel Chaim, AP)

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Raqqa - US-backed forces who captured Raqqa from the Islamic State group prepared to hand the Syrian city over to a civilian authority, with some of their fighters already headed to the next battle.

Inside the city, positions that had long been manned by fighters of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were abandoned, though some remained in the central al-Naim square, dancing and ululating as they celebrated their victory.

The SDF battled for more than four months, with US-led coalition support, to capture the city that was once the de facto Syrian capital of ISIS' self-styled "caliphate".

READ: Foreign fighters not leaving Raqa

They announced the end of combat on Tuesday, though operations to clear explosives and seek out sleeper cells were ongoing.

Civilians killed

Raqqa's capture leaves the jihadists with little remaining territory in Syria, most of it in neighbouring Deir Ezzor province, where some SDF fighters were already headed to carry on the campaign.

"Some of the forces withdrew, others will remain in the city until we finish the minor combing operations, then the city will be handed over to the civil council," said SDF commander Rojda Felat.

"After the end of military operations, a large part of the forces have moved out of Raqqa to other areas, including Deir Ezzor," added Mustefa Bali, spokesperson for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF.

At least 16 civilians including several children were killed in air strikes in Deir Ezzor on Thursday believed to have been carried out by Russian jets, a monitor said.

"The civilians were killed as they tried to cross the Euphrates river near the town of Abu Kamal," the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Abu Kamal is one of the few remaining urban strongholds of ISIS in Syria.

SDF spokesperson Talal Sello said two days of mopping-up operations in Raqqa had so far uncovered no additional ISIS fighters, but that interrogations of those who were captured or surrendered during the battle were ongoing.

ISIS captured mostly Sunni Arab Raqqa in 2014, and under its rule the city became infamous for gruesome abuses and as a planning centre for attacks abroad.

Its loss deals a major blow to the jihadists' dreams of statehood, and comes after their July defeat in Iraq's second city Mosul, their other major urban stronghold.

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