BEIRUT — U.S.-backed Syrian forces liberated the city of Raqqa from Islamic State militants Tuesday, a senior commander said, in a major defeat for the collapsing extremist group that had proclaimed it to be the capital of its “caliphate.”
Although clashes in Raqqa have ended, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are in control, combing the city in northern Syria for land mines and searching for any IS sleeper cells left behind, Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo told The Associated Press.
Dozens of militants who refused to surrender made their last stand in Raqqa’s sports stadium, which the group had turned into a notorious prison in the more than three years it held the city.
The SDF forces earlier captured Raqqa’s main hospital, the other last remaining IS holdout. The facility had served as both a hospital and an IS command centre.
Sillo said a formal declaration that Raqqa has fallen would be made soon, once the troops finish their clearing operations in the city on the banks of the Euphrates River. The city is still full of land mines, one of which killed the head of the internal security force affiliated with the SDF on Monday, he said.
In recent months, the Islamic State has steadily lost territory in Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul.
After the group seized Raqqa from other Syrian rebels in early 2014, it transformed the one vibrant metropolis into the epicenter of its brutal rule where opponents were beheaded and terror plots were planned.
IS militants had been cornered in and around the stadium, and it was not immediately clear after Sillo’s statement whether any were still inside it.
“The stadium is a huge structure with underground rooms and tunnels. There are also buildings around it” still under the control of IS, said SDF spokesman Musafa Bali.
Earlier, he said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital.
On Monday, the SDF captured “Paradise Square,” Raqqa’s infamous public square that was used by the militants to perform beheadings and other killings in front of residents who were summoned by loudspeakers and forced to watch. Bodies and severed heads would be displayed there for days, mounted on posts and labeled with their crimes, according to residents, who later dubbed it “Hell Square.”
With the capture of the hospital, the last black IS flag was taken down, according to the Kurdish-run Hawar news agency. A video released by the news agency showed the clashes around the hospital, which appeared riddled with bullets and partly blackened from a fire.
A senior Kurdish commander said there was no sign of civilians in the stadium or around it, but he added that his troops were being cautious because of possible land mines. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
The U.S.-led coalition said it had not carried out any airstrikes in or around Raqqa since noon Sunday.
The battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants. The city has suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings levelled and in ruins.
Sarah El Deeb, The Associated Press