US-backed Syrian force declares victory in former ISIS 'capital' Raqqa

2017-10-20 13:21
A fighter from the Kurdish People Protection Unit (YPG) poses for a photo at sunset in the Syrian town of Ain Issi, around 50km north of Raqqa. (Delil Souleiman, AFP)

A fighter from the Kurdish People Protection Unit (YPG) poses for a photo at sunset in the Syrian town of Ain Issi, around 50km north of Raqqa. (Delil Souleiman, AFP)

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Beirut – A US-backed Syrian force declared victory over the Islamic State group (ISIS) in its former "capital" of Raqqa on Friday, declaring the northern Syrian city free of any extremist presence.

At a press conference held inside the city on Friday, the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) formally handed over administration of the devastated northern city to a council made up of local officials and tribal leaders.

In a highly symbolic move, the press conference was held inside the city's sports stadium which Islamic State militants had turned into an arms depot and a huge prison where they incarcerated and tortured their opponents.

READ: Fighters in Syria's Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

"Our victory is one against terrorism, and the liberation of Raqqa marks the latest chapter in the fight against terrorists in Syria," said Talal Sillo, a spokesperson and senior SDF commander.

Standing before a backdrop of shattered buildings, Sillo urged the international community and aid organisations to assist with the city's reconstruction.

Associated Press drone footage from Raqqa showed the extent of devastation caused by weeks of fighting between Kurdish-led forces and the Islamic State group and thousands of bombs dropped by the US-led coalition.

655 fighters killed in 'battle for Raqqa'

Footage from Thursday shows the bombed-out shells of buildings and heaps of concrete slabs lay piled on streets littered with destroyed cars. Entire neighbourhoods are seen turned to rubble, with little sign of civilian life.

The video showed entire blocks in the city as uninhabitable with knocked-out walls and blown-out windows and doors, while some buildings had several storeys turned to piles of debris. The stadium that was used as an arms depot and prison by the extremists appears to have suffered less damage compared with surrounding buildings.

ALSO READ: Syrian commander says Raqqa is free from ISIS

"We call upon all countries and peace-loving forces and all humanitarian organisations to participate in rebuilding the city and villages around it and help in removing the scars of war that were inflicted by the (ISIS) group," Sillo said.

Sillo said 655 local and international fighters lost their lives during the four-month battle for Raqqa.

Long before the ground offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces began in Raqqa in early June, warplanes pounded the city for months.

The US-backed Kurdish-led SDF announced on Tuesday they have driven ISIS militants out of the city after weeks of fighting.

The fall of Raqqa marks a major defeat for ISIS, which has seen its territories steadily shrink since last year.

ISIS took over Raqqa, located on the Euphrates River, in January 2014, and transformed it into the epicentre of its brutal rule.

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