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US-backed forces 'liberate' Raqqa from Islamic State

A formal declaration is expected from the Syrian city once clearing operations are completed.

Syrian Democratic Forces celebrate in the street in Raqqa.
Syrian Democratic Forces celebrate in the street in Raqqa. APTV

The Syrian city of Raqqa has been liberated from Islamic State militants, a senior commander for a US-backed force has said.

Clearing operations were under way to remove land mines left behind and search for the extremist group's sleeper cells, Brigadier General Talal Sillo added.

Brig Gen Sillo said on Tuesday there are no longer clashes in the city, which had served as the extremist group's headquarters and self-proclaimed capital of their so-called "caliphate" for more than three years.

A formal declaration will be made from the city soon, after the clearing operations end.

US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesperson for the US-led coalition, said that 90% of Raqqa had been cleared after a four-month operation.

Raqqa is still full of land mines, Brig Gen Sillo added, but fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces are now in control of the former "capital of terrorism".

On Monday, the head of a police force affiliated with the SDF, was killed in a land mine explosion in the city, he said.

Losing Raqqa is a huge blow for IS, which has steadily lost territory in Iraq and Syria, including Iraq's second largest city of Mosul few months ago.

The group declared the city on the banks of the Euphrates River, which it seized from other Syrian rebels in early 2014, to be the capital of its self-styled "caliphate", transforming the one vibrant metropolis into the epicentre of its brutal rule where opponents were beheaded and terror plots were planned.

SDF soldiers move through debris in the Al Dariya neighborhood in western Raqqa
SDF soldiers move through debris in the Al Dariya neighborhood in western Raqqa PA

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.

After Brig Gen Sillo's statement, it was not immediately clear if the IS militants were still inside the stadium.

Also earlier, Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital.

"The stadium is a huge structure with underground rooms and tunnels. There are also buildings around it" still under the control of IS, he said and added that "there is nothing decisive today".

On Monday, the Kurdish-led SDF captured Paradise Square, Raqqa's public square where Islamic State militants used to perform killings and beheadings, forcing residents to watch after summoning them with loudspeakers.

Bodies and severed heads would linger there for days, mounted on posts.

Residents described how the bodies of those slain would be labelled, each with his or her perceived crime, for the public to see.

The square previously known for its famous ice cream shop was quickly renamed from Paradise to Hell Square, Jahim in Arabic.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said with the capture of the hospital, the last black IS flag raised in the city had been taken down.

A video released by the news agency illustrated the clashes around the hospital building, which appeared riddled with bullets and partly blackened from a fire.

A senior Kurdish commander said there is no sign of civilians in the stadium or around it but hat his troops are cautious because they expect IS has laid mines in the fortified stadium building.

SDF soldiers watch an air-strike on IS targets.
SDF soldiers watch an air-strike on IS targets. PA

The US-led coalition said it had not carried out any air strikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours, starting from noon Sunday.

The battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.

In the campaign, the city suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings levelled and in ruins.

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