The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Monday (October 16th) announced that the final phase of the battle to liberate al-Raqa from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) is shaping up to be one of the "toughest yet".
"The SDF are currently waging their toughest battles yet," said SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed as the Arab-Kurd ground forces moved in on the group's last outposts in the city, backed by coalition airstrikes.
Faced with the onslaught, ISIS fighters "can choose between surrendering and dying", she said.
An estimated 300 ISIS fighters -- mostly foreign fighters -- are surrounded in central parts of the city, she said, but are expected to make a fierce last stand.
"The ISIS elements that are still there are resisting," she said, adding that the neighbourhoods where fighting is under way "are fortified and heavily mined areas".
Intermittent artillery fire rang out and thick columns of smoke rose above the city on Monday as the liberating forces fought to seize the last 10% of the city after a weekend deal to evacuate civilians.
Overnight, SDF fighters captured the northern al-Barid neighbourhood, and were on Monday focusing their efforts on several adjacent districts, Ahmed said.
Inside the city, there was heavy destruction around the national hospital, one of the key remaining ISIS positions, though the complex's observation tower was still standing.
Final phase of the battle
"Our forces are clearing the area, we have not entered the hospital yet," said SDF fighter Shoresh Halab. "At the moment there are no offensive operations against us."
"After the evacuation of civilians, the operation has become easier for us," he added. "ISIS was taking the civilians and putting them in front so the planes would not hit them."
On Sunday, the SDF announced the "final phase" of the battle for the city, with a resumption of fighting after a pause to negotiate the safe exit of civilians and the surrender of some ISIS fighters.
In a statement, the SDF said the last phase of the fighting would "end the presence of the terrorist mercenaries inside the city".
SDF spokesman Talal Sello on Sunday said the city was virtually empty of civilians after 3,000 left Saturday as part of a deal agreed between local officials and Syrian ISIS fighters.
"Only 250 to 300 foreign terrorists who refused the deal and decided to stay and fight until the end remain in the city, and relatives of some members are with them," he said.
Under the deal, 275 Syrian ISIS fighters and relatives surrendered to the SDF, though it was unclear whether they would be given safe passage elsewhere.
'Difficult' fighting left
There had been speculation for days about a deal to allow the SDF to capture the last parts of the city while preventing further civilian casualties.
But there were contradictory reports about whether the deal would allow foreign ISIS fighters to leave, something that has been strongly opposed by the international coalition.
A spokesman for the coalition said Monday that its strikes had been on hold during talks on the deal, but would now resume.
"Now that that arrangement is complete and the SDF are going to resume their offensive into the city I certainly expect that strikes will increase," said coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon.
But he declined to speculate how quickly the city could now fall.
"We still expect that the fight in this final piece is going to be difficult," he said. "We are not putting a timeline on it."