A commander with the U.S.-backed Syrian forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) says the city of Raqqa has been liberated from militants, and combing operations are underway to clear the city of land mines and extremist sleeper cells.
Brig.-Gen. Talal Sillo told The Associated Press on Tuesday that there are no longer clashes in the city.
Sillo said a formal declaration will follow befitting “the fall of the capital of terrorism.”
Militia fighters celebrated in the streets, chanting slogans from their vehicles, according to one witness, while others embraced and smiled in a battle-scarred landscape of a public square.
Earlier, dozens of militants who refused to surrender had made their last stand in the city’s stadium, which had become notorious as a prison and dungeons for the group.
It wasn’t immediately clear if ISIS militants are still holed up inside the stadium. The area was being cleared by Kurdish and Arab militias, according to Rojda Felat, commander of the Raqqa campaign for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
An SDF soldier talks on the radio near Raqqa’s stadium amid operations to clear the area of ISIS holdouts on Oct. 16. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by a U.S.-led international alliance, has been fighting ISIS inside Raqqa since June.
The flags of the SDF and its allies — the Kurdish militia YPG and its female counterpart, the YPJ — were raised over the stadium and elsewhere around the city, while the last remaining black flag of ISIS was taken down from the National Hospital.
The stadium and hospital were the last major positions held by ISIS after the departure of some of its fighters on Sunday, leaving only foreign jihadists to mount a last stand.
The hospital was taken by SDF forces after fierce fighting overnight and early Tuesday, according to a spokesman.
SDF commander Rojda Felat walks with her group’s flag at Raqqa’s iconic al-Naim square on Monday. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
Raqqa fell to the militant group in 2014 and became the de facto capital of its self-styled caliphate.
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.
ISIS has lost swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq this year, including its most prized possession, Mosul, and in Syria it has been forced back into a strip of the Euphrates valley and surrounding desert.
The only populated areas still controlled by the jihadist group in Syria are the towns and villages downstream of Deir al-Zor along the Euphrates valley. They are areas that ISIS ran from Raqqa the past three years.
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