Kurdish-led, U.S. Backed Forces Clearing Last ISIS-held Pocket of Syria's Raqqa

Offensive is expected to be completed within three days, comes after some 275 militants and their families surrendered over the weekend

A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) carries a weapon as he stands near a military vehicle in Raqqa, Syria, October 16, 2017.
RODI SAID/REUTERS

A U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force battling the Islamic State group in Syria will be in control of Raqqa "within a few days" after attacking the last militant-held pocket of the city, a spokesman for the force said Monday.

Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, also said that fierce street battles were underway near the main hospital in Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the extremists' self-proclaimed caliphate.

SDF fighters launched an operation to retake the last ISIS-held pocket of the city after some 275 militants and their family members surrendered over the weekend. The extremists still hold about 10 percent of Raqqa, including the hospital and the main stadium, which is believed to be used by the militants as a jail and an arms depot.

Activists said those who surrendered were taken to an SDF-run prison in the nearby town of Tabqa, where they are being interrogated before being put on trial.

"We believe that it will be all over within a few days," Bali said. "Those (Islamic State) fighters who are still inside will fight to death."

Bali says SDF fighters are marching toward the hospital and the stadium under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

A senior Kurdish commander with SDF in Raqqa said that since Sunday night until the early hours Monday, civilians had trickled out of ISIS-held part of the city. The commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that more than 400 civilians have reached SDF fighters "and are now with us."

More civilians are still expected to come out, he said, additing that 15 more ISIS fighters have surrendered. The fighting has calmed down to allow civilians to leave.

"We know there are groups of Daesh, specially the foreigners. We want to speed up the campaign, no more than two or three days," the commander said. Daesh is the Arabic name for ISIS.

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces and their allies began a major offensive on ISIS-held neighborhoods in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, according to state TV and the opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory said government forces are pushing through two neighborhoods under the cover of airstrikes by Russian warplanes.
The move by government forces came just two days after Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops captured the ISIS stronghold of Mayadeen, south of Deir el-Zour, in another blow to the extremists in eastern Syria.

The loss of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour would hand another major blow to ISIS, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi forces captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — the largest ever held by ISIS — in July, and Syria's Mayadeen, near the border with Iraq, was retaken by government forces on Saturday.