In Syria’s Raqqa, IS makes last stand at city’s stadium

October 17, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces battling the Islamic State group in Syria on Tuesday captured the city hospital in Raqqa, leaving IS militants holed up at the local stadium, their last stand in the fight over what was once the extremists’ de facto capital.

The hospital was one of IS last holdouts in Raqqa and had doubled as a hospital and an IS command center. Its capture left IS militants cornered in and around the notorious municipal stadium. Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital. The fighting was still underway with militants who had refused to surrender, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that a major push by the SDF on the municipal stadium was underway. Clashes are ongoing around the stadium with “a small group” of militants, said a senior Kurdish commander. “We hope it won’t take long. Our aim is to clear the stadium also today.”

He said there is no sign of civilians in the stadium or around it but hat his troops are cautious because they expect IS has laid mines in the fortified stadium building. The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The stadium served as an arms depot, a security headquarters and one of the Islamic State militants’ largest jails in their self-styled caliphate. The U.S.-led coalition said it had not carried out any airstrikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours, starting from noon Sunday.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said with the capture of the hospital, the last black IS flag raised in the city had been taken down. On Monday, the SDF captured Raqqa’s infamous public square where Islamic State militants used to perform brutal executions and beheadings.

Paradise Square became synonymous with the group’s reign of terror. After declaring their self-styled caliphate in 2014, the militants used Raqqa’s central city square to carry out public beheadings and killings, forcing the 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 executed 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, Jahim in Arabic. The battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.

The fall of the city would be a huge blow to IS, which has steadily been losing territory in Iraq and Syria. In the campaign, the city suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings leveled and in ruins.

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