* Fall of city symbol of Islamic State's collapsing fortunes
* SDF fighters clearing stadium of mines
* Raqqa used to plan Islamic State attacks abroad
(Adds U.S. State Department comment)
By John Davison and Rodi Said
RAQQA, Syria, Oct 17 (Reuters) - U.S.-backed militias in
Syria declared victory over Islamic State in its capital Raqqa
on Tuesday, raising flags over the last jihadist footholds after
a four-month battle.
The fighting was over and the alliance of Kurdish and Arab
militias was clearing the city's stadium of mines and any
remaining militants, said Rojda Felat, commander of the Raqqa
campaign for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
A formal declaration of victory in Raqqa will soon be made,
once the city has been cleared of mines and any possible Islamic
State sleeper cells, said SDF spokesman Talal Selo.
In Washington, the U.S. military said that about 90 percent
of Raqqa had been retaken from Islamic State but it expected the
SDF to face pockets of resistance.
The fall of Raqqa, where Islamic State staged euphoric
parades after its string of lightning victories in 2014, is a
potent symbol of the jihadist movement's collapsing fortunes.
Islamic State has lost much of its territory in Syria and
Iraq this year, including its most prized possession, Mosul. In
Syria, it has been forced back into a strip of the Euphrates
valley and surrounding desert.
The SDF, backed by a U.S.-led international alliance, has
been fighting since June to take the city which Islamic State
used to plan attacks abroad.
A Reuters witness said militia fighters celebrated in the
streets, chanting slogans from their vehicles.
The fighters and commanders clasped their arms round each
other, smiling, in a battle-scarred landscape of rubble and
ruined buildings around the main square.
The flags in the stadium and others waved in the city
streets were of the SDF, its strongest militia the Kurdish YPG,
and the YPG's female counterpart, the YPJ.
Fighters hauled down the black flag of Islamic State, the
last still flying over the city, from the National Hospital near
"We do still know there are still IEDs (improvised explosive
devices) and booby traps in and amongst the areas that ISIS once
held, so the SDF will continue to clear deliberately through
areas," said Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition.
In a sign that the four-month battle for Raqqa had been in
its last stages, Dillon said there were no coalition air strikes
there on Monday.
Speaking with reporters in Washington later on Monday via
video conference, Dillon said about 100 Islamic State fighters
still remained in Raqqa.
"We expect our Syrian Democratic Force partners to hit
pockets of resistance as the final parts of the city (are)
cleared," Dillon added.
TRAPPED BY FIGHTING
Fatima Hussein, a 58-year-old woman sitting on a pavement
smoking a cigarette, said she had emerged from her house after
being trapped for months by the fighting. Islamic State had
killed her son for helping civilians leave the city, she said.
The fight for Raqqa has shattered much of the city. Houses,
apartment blocks and public buildings were flattened by air
strikes or holed by shellfire.
On Tuesday the international charity Save the Children said
many of the 270,000 people who fled the fighting would likely be
stuck in aid camps for months or years.
Children who fled were haunted by nightmares from the
violence they witnessed, including Islamic State beheadings and
coalition air strikes, it said.
The SDF has said that after the Raqqa battle ends, it would
hand over control to a civil council set up by its political
allies. It echoes the pattern in other territory the YPG and its
allies have taken across northern Syria.
The State Department said the United States would help clear
rubble and restore basic services in Raqqa.
"We will assist and take, essentially, the lead in bringing
back the water, electricity and all of that," State Department
spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing. "But eventually the
governance of the country of Syria is something that I think all
nations remain very interested in."
Kurdish influence in the future of the mainly Arab city has
been a sensitive issue for some activists from Raqqa and for
Turkey. Ankara views the YPG militia as an extension of the PKK
that has waged an insurgency on Turkish soil for three decades.
The SDF took the National Hospital after fierce fighting
overnight and early on Tuesday, said spokesman Mostafa Bali.
"During these clashes, the National Hospital was liberated
and cleared from the Daesh mercenaries, and 22 of these foreign
mercenaries were killed there," said Bali, using the Arabic
acronym for Islamic State.
An SDF field commander who gave his name as Ager Ozalp said
three militiamen had been killed on Monday by mines that have
become an Islamic State trademark in its urban battles.
Another field commander, who gave his name as Abjal
al-Syriani, said SDF fighters had found burned weapons and
documents in the stadium.
The stadium and hospital became the last major positions
held by Islamic State after some of its fighters quit, leaving
only foreign jihadists to mount a last stand.
The SDF has been supported by a U.S.-led international
coalition with air strikes and special forces on the ground
since it started the battle for Raqqa city in early June.
The final SDF assault began on Sunday after a group of
Syrian jihadists evacuated the city under a deal with tribal
elders, leaving only a hard core of up to 300 fighters to defend
the last positions.
PASSPORTS AND MONEY
Raqqa was the first big city Islamic State captured in early
2014, before its series of rapid victories in Iraq and Syria
brought millions of people under the rule of its self-declared
caliphate, which passed laws and issued passports and money.
It used the city as a planning and operations centre for its
warfare in the Middle East and its string of attacks overseas,
and for a time imprisoned Western hostages there before killing
them in slickly produced films distributed online.
The SDF advance since Sunday also brought it control over
the central city public square, where Islamic State once
displayed the severed heads of its enemies, and which became one
of its last lines of defence as the battle progressed.
The offensive has pushed Islamic State from most of northern
Syria, while a rival offensive by the Syrian army, backed by
Russia, Iran and Shi'ite militias, has driven the jihadists from
the central desert.
On Tuesday, a military media unit run by Lebanon's Hezbollah
said the Syrian army, which Hezbollah fights with, had pushed
into the last Islamic State districts of Deir al-Zor city.
The only populated areas the jihadist group still controls
in Syria are the towns and villages downstream of Deir al-Zor
city along the Euphrates valley, areas that for the past three
years Islamic State ran from Raqqa.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Dahlia Nehme in
Beirut and Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by
Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and
First Published: 2017-10-17 10:28:09
Updated 2017-10-17 22:21:13
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