U.S. rules out ne­go­ti­ated IS with­drawal from Syria’s Raqqa

The Western Star - - Obituaries / World -

The U.S.-led coali­tion bat­tling the Is­lamic State group said Wed­nes­day that it won’t ac­cept a ne­go­ti­ated with­drawal for hun­dreds of IS mil­i­tants holed up in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, once the ex­trem­ists’ de facto cap­i­tal.

The re­marks by coali­tion spokesman, Col. Ryan Dil­lon, came as coali­tion al­lies were work­ing out ways to safely evac­u­ate an es­ti­mated 4,000 civil­ians who re­main trapped in the city.

The coali­tion has said IS mil­i­tants are hold­ing some civil­ians as hu­man shields, pre­vent­ing them from es­cap­ing as the fight en­ters its fi­nal stages. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly dam­aged by the fight­ing, and ac­tivists have re­ported that over 1,000 civil­ians have been killed there since June.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates 8,000 peo­ple are trapped in Raqqa, and said Septem­ber was the worst month in 2017 for civil­ians in Syria.

Dil­lon said the Raqqa Civil Coun­cil, a lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion of Arab and Kur­dish of­fi­cials, was lead­ing the dis­cus­sions to en­sure the safe evac­u­a­tion of civil­ians. How­ever, it was not clear with whom the coun­cil is speak­ing in­side Raqqa. A Kur­dish-led force, the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, is lead­ing the bat­tle on the ground.

“We are see­ing some good progress of civil­ians that are be­ing able to safely exit Raqqa. The trend has turned into ... a broader ef­fort by the Raqqa Civil Coun­cil to get the re­main­ing civil­ians out of there,” Dil­lon told The As­so­ci­ated Press. He said at least 700 civil­ians have been evac­u­ated from the city since Mon­day.

But Dil­lon added that dis­cus­sions about the fate of the mil­i­tants re­main­ing in the city have fo­cused on “un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der.”

A ne­go­ti­ated with­drawal “is ab­so­lutely some­thing that we as a coali­tion would not be a part of or agree with,” Dil­lon added. Be­tween 300 and 400 mil­i­tants are be­lieved to be holed up in about 4 square kilo­me­tres (1.5 square miles) of Raqqa, in­clud­ing in the city’s sta­dium and a hospi­tal, he said.

The sta­dium is be­lieved to be used by the mil­i­tants as weapons ware­house and a prison while the hospi­tal is one of their ma­jor head­quar­ters.

Dil­lon said that in the last three weeks, up to 15 mil­i­tants, in­clud­ing a se­nior leader, have sur­ren­dered in Raqqa, a trend also seen in Iraq. Dil­lon said an­other lead­ing fig­ure was ar­rested when he tried to es­cape among a group of civil­ians.

Airstrikes on the city ap­peared to have de­creased re­cently, ap­par­ently to al­low for the evac­u­a­tions. The coali­tion re­ported just five airstrikes near Raqqa on Tues­day. The ex­trem­ist group has suf­fered a se­ries of ma­jor bat­tle­field de­feats in Iraq and Syria in re­cent months.

At least three sui­cide bombers struck out­side the po­lice head­quar­ters in cen­tral Da­m­as­cus on Wed­nes­day, killing at least two peo­ple and wound­ing oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian in­te­rior min­is­ter.

IS claimed the at­tack through its Aa­maq news agency. The ex­trem­ist group car­ried out a sim­i­lar at­tack on a Da­m­as­cus po­lice sta­tion last week that killed 17 peo­ple.

The pro-govern­ment AlIkhbariya TV on Wed­nes­day showed pic­tures from out­side the heav­ily guarded po­lice head­quar­ters, which is en­cir­cled by blast walls.

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