In Syria's Raqqa, Islamic State Makes Last Stand at City's Stadium
BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces battling the Islamic State group in Syria captured the city hospital in Raqqa on Tuesday, 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, which they had turned into a huge prison where they incarcerated anyone who opposed their brutal rule.
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.
Bali denied a report by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Raqqa city was now completely empty of IS militants, saying IS fighters are still holed up inside.
"The stadium is a huge structure with underground rooms and tunnels. There are also buildings around it" still under the control of IS. He added that the fighting is ongoing "and there is nothing decisive today."
Losing Raqqa has been a huge blow for IS, which has steadily lost territory in Iraq and Syria, including Iraq's second largest city of Mosul 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 one vibrant metropolis into the epicenter of its brutal rule where opponents were beheaded and terror plots were planned.
On Monday, the Kurdish-led SDF captured "Paradise Square," Raqqa's infamous public square where Islamic State militants used to perform killings and beheadings, 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, Jahim in Arabic.
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. A video released by the news agency illustrated the clashes around the hospital buidling, which appeared riddled with bullets and partly blackened from a fire.
A senior Kurdish commander said clashes were ongoing around the stadium Tuesday with "a small group" of militants.
"We hope it won't take long. Our aim is to clear the stadium also today," the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
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 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 battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.
In the campaign, the city suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings leveled and in ruins.