Iraq News

Security forces comb al-Raqa after ISIS ouster


A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces walks through a heavily damaged street in al-Raqa on Wednesday (October 18th). [Bulent Kilic/AFP]

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces walks through a heavily damaged street in al-Raqa on Wednesday (October 18th). [Bulent Kilic/AFP]

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) combed the ruins of al-Raqa for survivors and bombs on Wednesday (October 18th), after ousting the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) and dealing a fatal blow to its dreams of statehood.

A lightning final assault by the SDF on Tuesday saw the group's defences collapse faster than expected, allowing the liberating forces to score a landmark victory in the three-year fight against ISIS.

SDF fighters flushed ISIS holdouts from al-Raqa's main hospital and municipal stadium, wrapping up a more than four-month offensive to rout the group from the de-facto capital of its self-proclaimed "caliphate".

SDF forces on Tuesday celebrated their victory at al-Naim traffic circle, known as the "Roundabout of Hell", where ISIS used to carry out public executions.

"This is the moment we were waiting for," said SDF fighter Hazem Kobane, planting the yellow SDF flag at the roundabout, where ISIS once spiked the severed heads of its opponents and burned books and cigarette packs.

Heartbroken city

Even far from the front line, al-Raqa natives were overwhelmed with emotion when learning of al-Naim's recapture.

"They beheaded my nephew. I was whipped four times there for not wearing my niqab properly," said Um Abdullah, 44, who fled ISIS three years ago.

As she recalled her few months under ISIS rule, she began to cry.

"I hope all the ISIS fighters' heads are hung on the same metal fence," she said.

Ahmad al-Hassan, an SDF member originally from al-Raqa, said the roundabout's capture conjured memories of ISIS atrocities.

But he still held fond memories of al-Naim before ISIS overran the city in 2014.

"It was full of restaurants, coffee shops, and the best canteen with a music hall that played Fairuz so loud you could hear it all over al-Raqa," Hassan said, of the Lebanese singer known across the Middle East.

He said he still recalled buying bananas from a stand in the traffic circle and pastries from a small shop run by a man called Abu Mohammad.

"I wish we could bring them all back, if they are even still alive," he said, speaking from Ain Issa north of al-Raqa.

Clearing the streets

On Wednesday, teams of SDF fighters deployed across the rubble-strewn streets to look for unexploded ordnance and booby traps left behind by the group.

"They are making sure there are no more sleeper cells," said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

"Mine-clearing operations and the re-opening of the city are under way," Bali said, adding that the SDF would only formally announce the liberation of the city once they are completed.

Meanwhile, the SDF and Kurdish intelligence services issued clear instructions forbidding displaced families from attempting to return to their homes.

"We urge our people in al-Raqa who fled ISIS rule not to return to the city for their own security until it is rid of terrorist explosives," the Asayesh, Kurdish internal security services, said in a statement.

While al-Raqa has been liberated, Save the Children on Tuesday warned that the humanitarian crisis in the region is still escalating.

"The military offensive in al-Raqa may be coming to an end, but the humanitarian crisis is greater than ever," the aid group's Syria director Sonia Khush said in a statement.

Save the Children warned that "some 270,000 people who have fled the al-Raqa fighting are still in critical need of aid, and camps are bursting at the seams", adding that most al-Raqa families had no homes to go back to.

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