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ISIS loses its 'caliphate' as SDF declare major victory in al-Raqa

By AFP

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather at the iconic al-Naim square in al-Raqa on October 17th after taking full control of the city from the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'. [Bulent Kilic/AFP]

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Tuesday (October 17th) they had taken full control of al-Raqa from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'" (ISIS), defeating the last extremist holdouts in the de facto Syrian capital of their now-shattered "caliphate".

Inside al-Raqa, joyous fighters from the Kurdish-Arab alliance celebrated and raised their yellow flag in the city's al-Naim traffic circle, which became known as "Hell Roundabout" after it was used for gruesome public executions.

"Hell Roundabout is now al-Naim Roundabout again," the fighters cheered, surrounded by crushed buildings and charred cars damaged in the ferocious battle for the city.

The SDF, which has been fighting inside the northern city since June 6th, flushed the few hundred ISIS fighters left in al-Raqa from their last positions in the main hospital and the national stadium.

"Everything is finished in al-Raqa, our forces have taken full control of al-Raqa," the alliance's spokesman Talal Sello told AFP.

He said the SDF was combing the city for any remaining ISIS elements who had not surrendered or been killed, adding that a major mine-clearing operation was already under way.

"The military operations in al-Raqa have finished, but there are clearing operations now under way to uncover any sleeper cells there might be and remove mines," Sello said.

The announcement came just days after the SDF said it was launching the final phase of its operation to retake the city.

Fierce fighting

There had been fears that the alliance could get bogged down in a protracted battle for the last 10% of the city where the ISIS elements had prepared for a last stand.

The SDF said the fighting was fierce Tuesday around the hospital and stadium, but their recapture was declared in quick succession, effectively ending ISIS's more than three-year military presence in the city.

Sello said an official statement announcing "the liberation of the city" would be made soon.

The battle for the city was fierce, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying Tuesday more than 1,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting.

The monitor put the overall death toll for the battle at 3,250, with 1,130 civilians among them, but said hundreds more were still missing.

Tens of thousands of civilians fled the fighting, some leaving ahead of the SDF's arrival, and others escaping towards the forces as they advanced in the city.

ISIS reduced to 'dwarf territory'

For Umm Abdullah, an al-Raqa native who fled the city three years ago, news of its capture from ISIS was overwhelming.

"I cannot describe my happiness," the 44-year-old told AFP in the town of Kobani, north of al-Raqa.

"When my sister told me it had been freed, she started to cry, and then I started to cry. Thank God, thank God."

After ISIS captured al-Raqa in 2014, the city become synonymous with the group's worst abuses and was transformed into a planning centre for attacks abroad.

Its capture leaves the group with little more than a "dwarf territory" in neighbouring Deir Ezzor province, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security think tank.

"ISIS will be mainly boxed into a strip of territory running along the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the province of Deir Ezzor," he said.

"This will be the centre of gravity for ISIS in Syria."

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