Final assault starts against IS in Raqa

US-backed militias said they had launched their final assault on Syria’s Raqa on Sunday after a convoy of IS fighters left the city, leaving only a hardcore of the group to mount a last stand.
“The battle will continue until the whole city is clean,” said a statement by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias.
SDF spokesman Talal Selo said that 275 Syrian IS fighters had withdrawn from the city along with civilian family members, leaving “no more than 200-300” foreign militants to fight on. Under the terms of their withdrawal, all other civilians left in Raqa were to be allowed safe passage out of the city, Selo said, adding that he believed only a few remained.
Raqa’s fall to the SDF now looks imminent after four months of battle.
“We still expect there to be difficult fighting,” said Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led international coalition backing the SDF in the war against IS.
Raqa was the first big Syrian city to fall to IS as it declared a “caliphate” and rampaged through Syria and Iraq in 2014, becoming an operations centre for attacks abroad and the stage for some of its darkest atrocities.
But IS has been in retreat for two years, losing swathes of territory in both countries and forced back into an ever-diminishing foothold along the Euphrates river valley.
“Last night, the final batch of fighters (who had agreed to leave) left the city,” said Mostafa Bali, another SDF spokesman. There were conflicting accounts as to how many people left in the convoy and who they were.
Selo said 275 Syrian fighters left along with their family members.
Laila Mostafa, head of the Raqa Civil Council, formed under SDF auspices to oversee the city, said that figure included both the fighters and their family members.
She said an earlier comment by another council member that some foreign fighters had left in the convoy was wrong. Before the convoy left, the coalition estimated that about 300-400 fighters remained.
The convoy would head to the remaining IS territory in eastern Syria, Omar Alloush of the Raqa Civil Council said on Saturday. It was still in territory held by the SDF on Sunday morning, Selo said.
Bali described the civilians who left with IS fighters in the convoy as human shields.
The militants had refused to release them once they left the city as agreed, wanting to take them as far as their destination to guarantee their own safety, he said.
Such withdrawals of fighters along with groups of civilians have grown commonplace in Syria’s six-year war, as a way for besieging forces to accelerate the fall of populated areas.
The agreement was brokered by the Raqa Civil Council and tribal elders to “minimise civilian casualties”, the coalition said on Saturday.
Tribal leaders from Raqa said they sought to prevent bloodshed among civilians still trapped in the city.
“If there are any civilians remaining (in the enclave) they would be the families of those foreigners. The civilians exited completely,” said Selo.
The SDF’s decision to hasten the battle’s end by allowing IS fighters to leave Raqa was at odds with the stated wishes of the US-led coalition that backs the militias with air strikes and special forces.
Dillon said on Sunday it was not involved in the evacuation but added: “We may not always fully agree with our partners at times. But we have to respect their solutions.” — Agencies