‘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’

Arab News - - INTERNATIONAL -

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.

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