‘No negotiated pullout for Daesh from Raqqa’
Talks to let civilians leave militant-held city Assad FM says Allied forces sparing Daesh Terrorists to fight ‘till the end,’ says coalition Opposition filmmaker ‘stabbed in Istanbul’
BEIRUT: The US-led coalition battling Daesh said on Wednesday that it won’t accept a negotiated withdrawal for hundreds of Daesh 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 Daesh militants are holding some civilians as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages for the last remaining slice of Raqqa in militant hands. 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.
Dillon said the Raqqa Civil Council, a local administration of Arab and Kurdish officials, was leading the discussions to ensure safe evacuation of civilians as the fight for Raqqa enters its final stages. However, it was not clear with whom the council is speaking inside Raqqa. A Kurdish-led force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is leading the US-backed battles 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 said. 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 holed up in about 4 square km 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 spotted in Iraq as the extremist group’s power wanes in both countries. Dillon said at least another leading figure was arrested among civilians, trying to escape.
Dillon said Daesh fighters in Raqqa are expected to fight to the death. The SDF said on Sunday it expected Raqqa’s capture to be announced within days.
Meanwhile, airstrikes on the city appeared to have decreased, apparently to allow for the evacuations and the talks. The coalition reported five airstrikes near Raqqa on Tuesday.
The battle for Raqqa began in June but after a swift start, stiff resistance by Daesh slowed down the advance by the Kurdish-led fighters.
Daesh took over the city in 2014 as it seized swathes of Syria and Iraq. Raqqa served as the group’s de facto Syrian capital, from where Daesh plotted deadly attacks abroad.
Meanwhile, the Syrian foreign minister accused the US-led coalition of wreaking destruction in Syria while sparing Daesh.
Walid Al-Moallem said during a visit to Russia on Wednesday that the US-led coalition has been “methodically destroying all except Daesh.” He claimed that Washington aims to destroy Syria’s economy and drag the war out.
Al-Moallem said the Kurds are now vying for control of oilfields in eastern Syria and warned that Syria will reassert its sovereignty over the area. The regime army under Russian air cover has raced for control of oilfields in the eastern Deir Ezzor province.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the start of his talks with Al-Moallem in Sochi that he would like to focus on a political settlement in Syria.
In another development, a Syrian filmmaker close to the opposition who made a film about a notorious regime prison has been stabbed by an unknown assailant in Istanbul, supporters and Syrian groups said Wednesday.
Muhammad Bayazid was stabbed on Tuesday while on his way to a meeting, according to an account posted on the filmmaker’s official Facebook page by a friend who witnessed the attack.
His wife Samah Safi Bayazid, who is also a filmmaker, confirmed the attack, describing it on her Facebook page as an “assassination attempt.” He was taken to hospital but his condition was not immediately clear.
Ahmad Ramadan, an official with the Syrian opposition in Istanbul, said Bayazid had produced a film about torture in a notorious Syrian prison.
He also described the attack as an “assassination attempt.”
Syrian opposition activists and journalists based in Turkey have repeatedly complained of threats to their security.
Supporters wrote on social media that Bayazid was working on a film about the notorious Tadmor prison in central Syria outside the ancient city of Palmyra.
It was there that hundreds of prisoners were massacred in 1980 under the presidency of Hafez Assad.
Bayazid’s upcoming film “The Tunnel” is based on the “true story” of a Syrian-American man who is unjustly imprisoned in Tadmor, its promoters said. Its first showing in Turkey was at the weekend.
Separately, three men blew themselves up near the police headquarters in central Damascus on Wednesday, the second such attack to hit the Syrian capital this month, state media said.
The blasts killed two people and injured six others, it said, citing the Interior Ministry.
Two suicide bombers tried to storm the police command centre and clashed with guards before detonating explosive devices outside on Khalid bin Walid street, the local police chief said on state TV.