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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

About 2,000 ISIL fighters remain in Syria's Raqqa, US envoy says

US special envoy for the coalition against ISIL, said the Syrian Democratic Forces had cleared about 45 per cent of Raqqa since launching an attack in early June

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are seen in Raqqa, Syria on July 31, 2017. Reuters /  Rodi Said
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are seen in Raqqa, Syria on July 31, 2017. Reuters / Rodi Said

About 2,000 ISIL fighters are estimated to remain in the Syrian city of Raqqa, fighting for their survival in the face of an offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a senior US official said.

Brett McGurk, US special envoy for the coalition against ISIL, said the SDF had cleared about 45 per cent of Raqqa since launching an attack in early June to seize [ISIL's] stronghold in northern Syria.

"Today in Raqqa [ISIL] is fighting for every last block … and fighting for their own survival" Mr McGurk told reporters on Friday.

Some 2,000 ISIL fighters are left in the city and "most likely will die in Raqqa", he said.

The assault on Raqqa coincided with the final stages of a campaign to drive ISIL from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where the Islamist militants were defeated last month.

Mr McGurk said ISIL has lost 70,000 square kilometres of the territory it once held in the two countries — 78 per cent of what they had seized in Iraq and 58 per cent of what they held in Syria.

Before every military operation, coalition forces surround the area targeted to make sure ISIL's foreign fighters cannot escape and make their way out of Iraq and Syria, he said.

With the close co-operation of Turkish forces, the entire Syrian-Turkish border was sealed and ISIL can no longer send militants trained in Syria for attacks in Europe and elsewhere, Mr McGurk said.

The coalition has compiled a database of almost 19,000 names of ISIL fighters gathered from cell phones, address books and other documents found on battlefields which it is sharing with the international police agency Interpol, he said.

ISIL is also fighting the forces of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, who is backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias.

Mr McGurk said "deconfliction" arrangements the US and Russian militaries have made to avoid accidents as they operate separately in Syria were working well despite deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two countries.

President Donald Trump said on Thursday the US-Russian relationship was at "an all-time and very dangerous low", and Russia said new sanctions imposed by Washington meant an end to hopes for better ties with the Trump administration.

"So far we have not seen an effect on our engagement with the Russians when it comes to Syria," Mr McGurk said.

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