BEIRUT (AFP) – Syrian fighters backed by US special forces battled on Thursday (Sept 21) to clear the last remaining Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group militants holed up in their crumbling stronghold of Raqqa.
Across the border in Iraq, security forces were attacking all remaining territory held by the extremists, who are fighting to prevent the all-out collapse of their self-proclaimed “caliphate”.
Most of Raqqa, long a byword for the militants’ most gruesome atrocities, is now in the hands of US-backed fighters supported by waves of heavy air strikes by a military coalition led by Washington.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces and American special forces began a mopping up operation in Raqqa,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday.
The British-based monitor said militant holdouts were still hiding in underground shelters in a part of the city centre where a football stadium and former government buildings are located.
But the operation was being slowed down by large numbers of mines planted by the militants in the city, where they have been under siege for three months, it said.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the Kurdish-Arab alliance of fighters were battling militants in “20 per cent of the city”.
“That sector is not under the control of Daesh... our forces are present there,” he said using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The SDF said Wednesday they were in the “final stages” of capturing Raqqa.
The Observatory said the US-backed fighters controlled 90 per cent of the city but the US-led coalition estimated they only held 65-70 per cent.
ISIS seized Raqqa in early 2014, making it their de facto Syria capital. They are thought to have used the city to plan attacks abroad.
'VICTORY AFTER VICTORY'
Across the border In Iraq, security forces backed by paramilitary units launched a dawn assault on a besieged ISIS-held pocket around the northern town of Hawija, just days after attacking the militants’ only other foothold in the country.
The territory still held by ISIS has been dwindling fast since its defeat in Iraq’s second city Mosul in July, with stronghold after stronghold coming under assault on both sides of the border with Syria.
After the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and the recapture of adjacent areas, Hawija and neighbouring towns form the last enclave still held by ISIS in Iraq apart from a section of the Euphrates Valley downstream from the border with Syria.
“Greetings to all of our forces, who are waging several battles of liberation at the same time and who are winning victory after victory and this will be another, with the help of God,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said.
An AFP correspondent heard heavy shelling around the ISIS-held town of Sharqat where Iraqi forces have been massing in recent days.
The US-led coalition fighting ISIS hailed the new offensive.
“Daesh is losing ground and failing in every battle. Soon ISIS will have no sanctuary in Iraq,” said coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon.
CONCERN FOR CIVILIANS
Humanitarian organisations expressed concern for the fate of civilians caught up in the offensive.
“The 85,000 civilians still in and around Hawija, including around 40,000 children, now face a terrifying time as they worry about getting caught up in the fighting or being hit by an air strike,” said International Rescue Committee acting country director Jason Kajer.
“For those who decide to flee, there is a significant risk of being targeted by ISIS snipers or killed by a mine.”
In Syria, thousands of civilians are still trapped inside Raqqa, the UN’S Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
“We now estimate that up to 15,000 civilians remain trapped in Raqqa city, although exact figures remain difficult to verify due to the situation on the ground,” OCHA’s Linda Tom said.
She said the civilians, many of them women and children, “are facing incredibly difficult conditions”, including food, water and medical shortages.
ISIS also holds pockets of territory in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where the extremists are facing separate offensive by Russian-backed government troops and the SDF.
In Syria they are also present in eastern parts of the central provinces of Homs and Hama, but it has come under attack by Russian-backed government forces there too.
In Iraq, government forces are also pursuing ISIS in the western desert near the border with Syria.