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Liberated Syrians join Arab-Kurd alliance in push towards al-Raqa

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces welcomes civilians from al-Raqa fleeing the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Democratic Forces]

As the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) moved in on a village in rural al-Raqa held by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), civilians saw a chance to flee the terrorist group.

But when ISIL elements realised the villagers were escaping, they began shooting at them, at which point members of the Arab-Kurd opposition alliance moved in to save them, an SDF fighter told Diyaruna.

The incident came as Operation Wrath of the Euphrates enters its third phase , which kicked off February 4th, furthering a push into rural al-Raqa and driving out ISIL fighters in an attempt to isolate al-Raqa city.

New recruits from liberated areas of al-Raqa have been joining the SDF in this effort, which has been making rapid progress towards the city with coalition air support.

Civilians in ISIL-occupied areas have been warned to stay away from ISIL centres and to head for safe areas as liberating forces approach.

"The current battles are being fought in order to seal off al-Raqa and the remaining countryside," said SDF unit commander Abdel Fattah Nasruddin.

This is being done by liberating al-Raqa's eastern countryside, he told Diyaruna, which would completely seal off the city from other parts of Syria, with SDF fighters advancing along two key axes, al-Makman and Sulouk.

They have penetrated 20 kilometres into each axis and are now approaching the outskirts of al-Raqa city, Nasruddin said, adding that "the battle is at its most critical stage to seal off the city in preparation for its liberation".

So far, the third stage of the operation has succeeded in liberating "the villages and farms of Abu Natalie, al-Hadi, Bir Saeed, Bir Fawaz, Ayed al-Ali, al-Haddal, al-Brayij, al-Ghazal al-Turshan, al-Hajjan" and five others, Nasruddin said.

During the same period, more than 50 ISIL elements have been killed, he said, adding that SDF fighters found bodies, weapons and vehicles, some carrying anti-tank missiles, that the group had left behind as it fled.

Villagers trapped

ISIL has been keeping residents of the villages and farms still under its control "under house arrest and to serve as human shields during battles", said al-Raqa resident and SDF fighter Anas Mudhir.

Residents are waiting for the liberation forces to approach so they can leave their villages, he told Diyaruna, which will in turn enable the SDF to advance.

As SDF fighters approached and surrounded the village of al-Alwash, "the residents traveled together and left their village towards the safe areas that are controlled by the SDF", Mudhir said.

ISIL elements were alerted to their departure, however, and started firing heavily in their direction, which forced them to hide at the village entrance.

"They were lucky because members of the SDF were close by and managed to engage ISIL and move the civilians to the safe areas," he said.

During clashes with the SDF, ISIL tried to target the civilians with a car bomb, he said, but the SDF detonated it before it reached them.

Mine removal

As SDF fighters move in on al-Raqa city, mines are being cleared from the liberated areas in the surrounding countryside, said Mustafa Ceylan, member of a de-mining team affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Mine removal operations are being conducted in tandem with the liberation of any village or farm, he told Diyaruna, in co-ordination with the technical teams of forces taking part in Operation Wrath of the Euphrates.

These efforts will enable civilians to return to their homes "as soon as possible", he said, and will ensure they are not hurt or killed by "explosions, mines or detonated devices".

This effort is necessary as ISIL elements have been "rigging all the areas they retreat from with explosives", Ceylan said.

The forces liberating al-Raqa's countryside have found roughly 200 explosive devices during the first days of the third stage of the operation, he added, and have defused more than 500 mines and booby traps.

"The morale of the SDF is very high due to several factors, including hundreds of youths from the countryside of al-Raqa joining the effort," he said.

These new recruits come from the towns and villages liberated during the first stage of the operation or fled the areas still under ISIL occupation, Ceylan said.

Support from the tribes and tribal elders of rural al-Raqa also has helped to raise morale, he added.

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By Allah, there must be still ISIL rats there.

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