Clean up starts as Syrian ‘capital of terrorism’ liberated from IS

TOPSHOT - Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US special forces, check the area near Raqa's stadium as they clear the last positions on the frontline on October 16, 2017 in the Islamic State (IS) group jihadists crumbling stronghold.'US-backed fighters battled  hundreds of Islamic State group jihadists holed up in the last pockets of Syria's Raqa, as the former extremist stronghold stood on the verge of capture. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US special forces, check the area near Raqa's stadium as they clear the last positions on the frontline on October 16, 2017 in the Islamic State (IS) group jihadists crumbling stronghold.'US-backed fighters battled hundreds of Islamic State group jihadists holed up in the last pockets of Syria's Raqa, as the former extremist stronghold stood on the verge of capture. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
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The Syrian city of Raqqa has been liberated from Islamic State militants, a senior commander for a US-backed force has said.

Clearing operations were beginning to remove land mines left behind and to search for the extremist group’s sleeper cells, Brigadier General Talal Sillo added.

Brig Gen Sillo said on Tuesday there were no longer clashes in the city, which had served as the extremist group’s headquarters and self-proclaimed capital of their so-called “caliphate” for more than three years.

A formal declaration will be made from the city as soon as the clearing operations end.

Raqqa is still full of land mines, according to Brig Gen Sillo, but fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces were now in control of the former “capital of terrorism”.

He said the head of a police force affiliated with the SDF had been killed in a land mine explosion in the city on Monday.

Losing Raqqa is a huge blow for IS, which has steadily lost territory in Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul a few months ago.

The group declared the city on the banks of the Euphrates River, which it seized from other Syrian rebels in early 2014, to be the capital of its self-styled “caliphate”, transforming the once vibrant metropolis into the epicentre of its brutal rule where opponents were beheaded and terror plots were planned.

Dozens of militants who refused to surrender had made their last stand in the city’s stadium, which had become notorious as a prison and dungeons for the group.

Following Brig Gen Sillo’s statement, it was not immediately clear if the IS militants were still inside the stadium.

SDF spokesman Musafa Bali said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the 
hospital.

“The stadium is a huge structure with underground rooms and tunnels,” he said. Mr Bali added there were buildings around the stadium still under the control of IS.

The Kurdish-led SDF captured Paradise Square, Raqqa’s public square where Islamic State militants used to perform killings and beheadings, on Monday, forcing residents to watch after summoning them with loudspeakers.

Bodies and severed heads would linger there for days mounted on posts. Residents described how the bodies of those slain would be labelled, each with his or her perceived crime, for the public to see.

The square previously known for its famous ice cream shop was quickly renamed from Paradise to Hell Square, or Jahim in Arabic.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said the final black IS flag raised in the city had been taken down with the capture of the hospital.

A video released by the news agency showed the clashes around the hospital building, which appeared riddled with bullets and partly blackened from a fire.

A senior Kurdish commander said there were no sign of civilians in or around the stadium, but that his troops were cautious because they expected IS had laid mines in the fortified building.

The US-led coalition said it had not carried out any air strikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours, starting from noon Sunday.

The battle for Raqqa started in June and has dragged on for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.

The city suffered major devastation in the campaign, leaving most of its buildings levelled and in ruins.

International charity group Save The Children said about 270,000 people who fled Raqqa were still in critical need of aid and that the “camps are bursting at the seams”.

Charity director for Syria Sonia Khush described camp conditions as “miserable”.