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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

‘Around 4,000 ISIL fighters and their families escape from Raqqa’, report

Britain’s state broadcaster has claimed that a deal was done between the SDF and ISIL that allowed fighters to escape from the besieged city

Damaged buildings are seen after fighters from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces took control of Raqqa, Syria, on October 22, 2017. Youssef Rabih Youssef / EPA
Damaged buildings are seen after fighters from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces took control of Raqqa, Syria, on October 22, 2017. Youssef Rabih Youssef / EPA

A report by Britain’s state broadcaster has claimed that around 4,000 ISIL fighters and their families were allowed to escape the besieged city of Raqqa in Syria.

The BBC reported that a secret deal arranged by local officials, enabled hundreds of ISIL fighters to leave the de facto capital of their caliphate. The deal was made to spare lives of fighters opposing the extremist group as the battle to liberate the city entered its final phase.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, hired bus drivers to go and pick up ISIL fighters and their families and drive them out of the city.

One of the drivers told the BBC that a convoy of 50 trucks, 13 buses and more than 100 of the ISIL’s own vehicles, filled with weapons and ammunition, left Raqqa.

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“We took out around 4,000 people including women and children - our vehicle and their vehicles combined. When we entered Raqqa, we thought there were 200 people to collect. In my vehicle alone, I took 112 people,” another driver told the broadcaster.

Fighters of different nationalities (not from Syria and Iraq) joined the convoy, eye witnesses said, despite an agreement with the SDF that no foreign fighters would be able to leave Raqqa alive.

According to the BBC, the US-led coalition was aware of the deal, which saw 250 fighters escape with 3,500 of their family members, although it said that it did not play an active part in the negotiation.

“We didn’t want anyone to leave,” says Col Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told the broadcaster.

“But this goes to the heart of our strategy, ‘by, with and through’ local leaders on the ground. It comes down to Syrians – they are the ones fighting and dying, they get to make the decisions regarding operations,” he said.

The bus drivers were believed to have set off on October 12, just five days before the SDF took back the city after a final dawn offensive.

Raqqa had been encircled by the SDF since June that year and the advance backed by the US-led Coalition had been painstakingly resisted by ISIL.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s six-year-old civil war, said that 80 per cent of the city had been destroyed in the fighting, and that more than 1,000 civilians had been killed since June, along with at least 2,000 combatants.

The report will cause security concerns across the world from authorities who are already fearful of an influx of ISIL fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq.