With Daesh besieged, focus on civilian exit from Raqqa

People displaced from fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Daesh (the so-called IS) militants queue for food aid from UN's World Food Program at a refugee camp in Ain Issa, Syria. — Reuters

By Maya Gebeily

— Talks for the safe exit of civilians trapped in Syria's Raqqa were underway Wednesday, as US-backed forces prepare a final push to recapture the city from Daesh (the so-called IS) group.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, have taken around 90 percent of the city from Daesfh since they broke into the city in June.

The US-backed militia has surrounded remaining Daesh fighters in just a handful of positions, but thousands of civilians are still in the city, some of them being used as human shields by the militants.

On Tuesday, the US-led coalition said officials from the Raqqa Civil Council — a provisional administration for the city set up by the SDF — were trying to negotiate the safe passage of civilians from remaining Daesh-held areas.

"The Raqqa Civil Council is leading discussions to determine the best way to enable civilians trapped by Daesh to exit the city, where some are being held as human shields by the terrorists," the coalition said.

"Those departing Raqqa who are found to have fought for Daesh will be turned over to local authorities to face justice."

The RCC declined comment on the discussions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said the talks were focused on granting surrendering Daesh fighters and their families a way out of Raqqa.

"The negotiations are for the exit of Daesh fighters and their families to Albu Kamal and eastern Deir Ezzor province," said observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Albu Kamal lies on the Syrian border with Iraq, and the town and adjacent areas in the east of Deir Ezzor province remain under Daesh control.

Deals to allow Daesh fighters to withdraw from territory have been negotiated in the past, including in May when a deal allowed several dozen militants to flee the town of Tabqa, west of Raqqa.

Daesh fighters and their families were also allowed to leave parts of the border region between Lebanon and Syria earlier this year, headed for Deir Ezzor, in a controversial deal agreed by the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah that was fiercely opposed by the US-led coalition.

'Lasting defeat'

"We have a responsibility to defeat Daesh while preserving civilian life to the greatest extent possible," the coalition's director of operations, Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, said in a statement on Tuesday.

"Make no mistake: a lot of hard fighting remains and we are committed to the lasting defeat of Daesh."

Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF's offensive, told AFP that between 600 and 700 active Daesh fighters were believed to remain in Raqqa, with an additional 800 to 900 wounded fighters also still inside the city.

She said some Daesh members had tried to disguise themselves among the hundreds of civilians fleeing the city on Tuesday, while at least one had handed himself in to SDF fighters. — AFP