Search for survivors in ghost city of Raqqa

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) burying a comrade, who died fighting to oust ISIS militants from Raqqa, in the nearby village of Hukumya, Syria, last week. A lightning final assault on Tuesday saw the SDF claim a landmark victory in the
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) burying a comrade, who died fighting to oust ISIS militants from Raqqa, in the nearby village of Hukumya, Syria, last week. A lightning final assault on Tuesday saw the SDF claim a landmark victory in the three-year fight against the terror group.PHOTO: NYTIMES

US-backed militia working to clear unexploded bombs after retaking Syrian city from ISIS in landmark victory

RAQQA • US-backed forces combed the ruins of Raqqa for survivors and bombs yesterday, after retaking the Syrian city from militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and dealing their dreams of statehood a fatal blow.

A lightning final assault by the US-backed militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on Tuesday saw ISIS defences collapse faster than expected and the SDF claim a landmark victory in the three-year fight against the terror group.

Teams of SDF fighters were deployed yesterday across the eerie, rubble-strewn streets of the city to look for unexploded ordnance and booby traps left behind by militants.

The weapons ranged from hastily rigged bombs to hidden pressure plates and motion-activated explosives. They were found under floors, concealed in ovens and drawers, and attached to corpses and children's toys.

In at least one instance, a teddy bear was rigged to explode.

"They are making sure there are no more sleeper cells" in Raqqa, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali told Agence France-Presse.

"Mine-clearing operations and the re-opening of the city are under way," he said, adding that his organisation would formally announce the liberation of the city only after the operations are completed.

The SDF and the Kurdish intelligence services issued clear instructions forbidding the tens of thousands of displaced families from attempting to return to their homes.

"We urge our people in Raqqa who fled ISIS rule not to return to the city for their own security until it is rid of terrorist explosives," the Kurdish internal security services said in a statement.

The loss of the city left ISIS ruling over a small "rump caliphate" straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and covering a fraction of the territory it held when it declared its "state" in July 2014. The US-led coalition supporting anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria said on Tuesday that the militants had lost 87 per cent of the territory they had three years ago.

Mr Brett McGurk, the White House's envoy to the multinational coalition, said on social media that ISIS had lost 6,000 fighters in Raqqa and described the organisation as "pathetic and a lost cause".

Raqqa was one of the most emblematic ISIS bastions, at the heart of both its military operations and its propaganda.

Several of the most high-profile attacks ISIS claimed in the West - such as the 2015 massacres in Paris - are believed to have been at least partly masterminded from Raqqa, earning the city the nickname of "terror central".

Raqqa also featured heavily in the propaganda videos - from public beheadings to trainings .

As many as 40,000 fighters were estimated to have travelled to join ISIS over the years but only hundreds remained towards the end.

Analysts say ISIS is already preparing for a new phase, morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started as, taking root among disaffected Sunni populations, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

Another major concern is what to do with the foreigners who had joined the fight and might return home to plan attacks there.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'Search for survivors in ghost city of Raqqa'. Print Edition | Subscribe