Fight to drive ISIL from Raqqa nears end

Fight to drive ISIL from Raqqa nears end

Fight to drive ISIL from Raqqa nears end

U.S.-backed militants say they are nearing the "final week" of their assault to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from their one-time Syrian bastion Raqqa, as the jihadists' self-described caliphate crumbles.

Losing Raqqa would be only the latest in a series of crushing defeats for the extremist group, which once controlled large swathes of territory spanning the border between Syria and Iraq.

Captured by ISIL in 2014, the northern city was the de facto Syrian capital of the jihadists' self-styled "caliphate" until the U.S.-backed assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militants.

The militia has captured around 90 percent of Raqqa since entering the city in June, after months of fighting to encircle it.

They are now advancing on ISIL-held districts from two fronts in the city's north and east, said commander Rojda Felat, who heads the "Wrath of the Euphrates" campaign.

"If the two fronts meet, we can say we have entered the final week of our campaign to liberate Raqqa," Felat told AFP on the western outskirts of Raqqa on Oct. 8.

"Within three to four days, we will be able to take the decision to begin the final campaign," she added.

Felat said fighting was still fierce along the front line, with ISIL using snipers, suicide bombers and reinforced positions in tunnels to hold up the SDF advance.

The jihadists still hold Raqqa's national hospital, the nearby football stadium and surrounding residential neighbourhoods, including the infamous Al-Naim roundabout, where ISIL staged public beheadings and crucifixions.

SDF militants have surrounded the hospital and were on Oct. 8 preparing a fresh push to seize the stadium before moving to Al-Naim, said Ali Sher, a field commander with the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which make up the bulk of the SDF.

"Then, there will only be the hospital left. At that point, we will call out to them to surrender and if they do not follow these orders, we will have to break down the barriers and enter the hospital," Sher told AFP.

ISIL is believed to be holding civilians as human shields in the hospital, complicating efforts to capture the position.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition backing the SDF's assault, said ISIL was using the hospital as a military base and it was "heavily fortified.”

He said coalition special forces advisors could accompany the SDF in a push for the facility but there would not be "full, tactical, coalition units assaulting the hospital.”

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Raqqa city and the surrounding area since the SDF began its offensive, but many others have remained trapped inside during the heavy fighting.

ISIL was forced from Iraq's Mosul in July and last week was driven from Hawija, meaning it holds just a sliver of territory in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian border.