BEIRUT — After losing Mosul, its de-facto Iraqi capital, ISIS is reported to have been driven out of Syria's Raqqa. US-backed coalition forces claim they are about to hand the jihadist militants another catastrophic defeat.
All ISIS ("Islamic State") fighters left in Syria’s Raqqa are expected to leave the city on Saturday night, taking civilians with them as human shields, a local official told Reuters.
Omar Alloush, a member of the Raqqa Civil Council, set up to run Raqqa after it is freed from IS, said the fighters would take with them 400 civilians being held at the city’s National Hospital.
The Syrian Kurdish militia YPG told Reuters that coalition forces could have the city clear of IS forces within days.
"The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (ISIS) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated," YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said.
The street-by-street fight has worn on for longer than many coalition officials had expected.
To relieve human suffering, local officials from the Raqqa Civil Council and tribal leaders announced Saturday they had struck a deal to evacuate civilians and local fighters. The SDF will search and screen all people departing Raqqa.
The US-led coalition confirmed the deal in a statement.
"The arrangement is designed to minimize civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign terrorists," the US-led coalition said in a statement, adding that it does not condone a deal that allows IS fighters "to escape Raqqa without facing justice, only to resurface somewhere else."
UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group said that the issue of foreign fighters was of particular concern.
"The obstacle to their departure is that the mastermind of attacks in Paris in November 2015 is believed to be among them and he has refused to surrender," SOHR head Rami Abdel-Rahman said. IS supporters killed 130 people in multiple terrorist attacks across Paris in November 2015.
Separately, the Syrian government and allied Shiite militia retook the town of Mayadeen from IS after intense fighting and Russian airstrikes, the Syrian military said Saturday.
Located along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, Mayadeen has been strategic IS stronghold as the group lost territory in Syria and Iraq.
Pro-Syrian regime forces have been trying to secure the Iraqi border and push IS out of a small pocket in the provincial capital Deir al-Zor.
But IS has lost much of its territory after US and Russian-backed forces began separate offensives against the militant group. In July, US-backed Iraqi forces retook Mosul, the jihadists' de-facto capital in Iraq.
Reuters, AP, dpa