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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

ISIL faces imminent defeat in Raqqa

The US-led coalition against ISIL said around 100 of the jihadist group's fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been 'removed from the city'

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) escort a blindfolded civilian detainee suspected to be a member of ISIL in Raqqa, Syria on October 12, 2017. Issam Abdallah / Reuters
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) escort a blindfolded civilian detainee suspected to be a member of ISIL in Raqqa, Syria on October 12, 2017. Issam Abdallah / Reuters

ISIL is on the verge of defeat in Syria's Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the extremists on Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters on Saturday.

The US-led coalition against ISIL said around 100 of the jihadist group's fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been "removed from the city", but it still expected difficult fighting "in the days ahead".

It did not say how they had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining ISIL fighters were being transported out of Raqqa by bus under a deal between ISIL, the US-led coalition and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG.

There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF.

The SDF, backed by coalition air strikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust ISIL from Raqqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.

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Read more: Volunteer city council plans for rebuilding Raqqa after ISIL's defeat

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The final defeat of ISIL at Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group's self-declared "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.

"The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh [ISIL] is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated," YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said around 100 ISIL fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and were "removed from the city", without giving further details.

"We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think [ISIL] will be completely defeated in Raqqa," he said, adding that around 85 per cent of Raqqa had been liberated as of October 13.

Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added.

Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqqa, told Reuters late on Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and "a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqqa province", without giving further details.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page on Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having travelled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Observatory said Syrian ISIL fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken to.

Deir Ezzor campaign

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signalled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

The campaign against ISIL in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir Ezzor which neighbours Iraq.

ISIL is facing separate offensives in Deir Ezzor by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian air strikes on the other.

In August, ISIL fighters agreed to be evacuated from a Lebanon-Syria border area, the first time the militants had publicly agreed to a forced evacuation from territory they held in Syria.

Civilians have been making perilous journeys to escape ISIL-held areas as SDF forces advance. The SDF says it helps transport them away from the fighting after they flee.

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Read more: 'White widow' British ISIL recruiter killed in air strike

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The offensive to drive ISIL out of Raqqa, its de facto Syrian capital which it seized in 2014, has long outlasted initial predictions by SDF officials who said ahead of an assault in June that it could take just weeks.

The battle for Raqqa has taken a severe toll on civilians.

Those inside the city for months have endured miserable conditions, lacking water, power, food and health care.

Rights group Amnesty International, the Observatory and monitoring group Airwars say hundreds have been killed by air strikes, fighting and ISIL snipers and mines.

The coalition says it takes great pains to avoid causing civilian casualties and investigates all reports that it has done so.