US-backed forces fighting ISIS in Raqqa say “major military operations” in the city have ended and that the jihadists have lost their grip on their self-declared capital.
The development marks a decisive victory in the fight against ISIS, though US officials said there were still pockets of resistance in the city.
“Major military operations in Raqqa are finished but they are now clearing the city of sleeper cells — if they exist — and mines,” Talal Salo, spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told CNN. The SDF is a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters.
“The situation in Raqqa is under control and soon there will be an official statement declaring the liberation of the city.”
The routing of ISIS in Raqqa is a symbol of the terror group’s decline — it now controls a small strip of territory along the Euphrates river in northern Syria.
The city became the de facto capital of the terror group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” following a sweep of territorial gains in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Foreign fighters swelled the ranks of ISIS in Raqqa, which it used as a base to launch terror attacks around the world.
One of the last battlegrounds was Paradise Square, the infamous area in the center where ISIS jihadists carried out public beheadings and crucifixions.
SDF fighters retook the National Raqqa Hospital from ISIS on Tuesday, the US coalition said on its website Tuesday.
Twenty-two ISIS foreign fighters were killed during clashes around the hospital, the SDF said, describing the jihadists as “mercenaries.”
“The SDF have taken casuaties in the past hours and we expect there will still be pockets of ISIS fighters in the coming days,” coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told CNN.
He said SDF forces recently triggered a hidden explosive planted by ISIS.
Nicknamed “Hell Square” by the city’s residents, Paradise Square (Al Naeem square in Arabic) was the place where locals were forced to watch atrocities after being summoned by loudspeakers.
Bodies and severed heads would be left there for days, mounted on posts.
There was only one US airstrike in Syria Monday, but that was far from Raqqa, where there haven’t been any for two days, a further indication that the battle for the city is almost over. Dillon said the SDF hadn’t asked for any more air support, meaning the coalition was confident that there were no more ISIS fighters left.
“Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently,” the award-winning network of citizen journalists who remained in the city throughout the occupation, tweeted Monday that 30 buses and 10 trucks were used to transfer ISIS fighters from Raqqa.
The group did not say where the fighters were taken.
The group also said that since June 09, there had been 3,829 airstrikes on the city, 90 suicide bombings and 1,873 victims. It said 450,000 people had been displaced.
On Sunday they also shared some photos of the captured ISIS fighters, with one picture of a man symbolically lighting a cigarette, banned under ISIS.