Syrian civilians on Raqqa’s western front after fleeing the city centre on Thursday. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The final group of local ISIS fighters who agreed to leave Raqqa in an evacuation deal departed Saturday night, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) confirmed. The news was followed by an announcement of the start of the final offensive to oust remaining fighters from Raqqa.
Some foreign fighters may have also left the city under the deal, according to reports.
“The operation has finished and the battle continues,” SDF spokesperson Mostafa Bali told Reuters. “Last night, the final batch of fighters [who agreed to leave] left the city.”
They took with them civilians as human shields, he said, adding that foreign fighters did not leave under the deal.
In an official announcement on Sunday confirming the successful evacuation of the remaining civilians and local ISIS fighters with their families, the SDF declared the start of an offensive to defeat ISIS in the remaining 10 percent of the city the militant group still controls.
The US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, in a statement on Saturday announcing the evacuation agreement, said foreign fighters were not included in the evacuation deal that was supposed to bring civilians out of the conflict zone
The initiative was proposed by local Arab tribal leaders in order to save civilian lives and minimize further destruction. The tribal leaders brokered the deal with Raqqa Civil Council.
Some foreign fighters have left Raqqa under the deal however, AFP reported, citing a local official.
"A portion of the foreigners have left," Omar Alloush, a senior member of the Raqqa Civil Council, told AFP.
On Saturday he had said, “The foreign fighters have two choices: either surrender or be taken out.”
Alloush said that as many as 500 ISIS fighters, both locals and foreigners, were still in the city as of Saturday and they were holding 400 women and children hostage in a hospital.
The number of fighters and civilians who have left the city has not been confirmed.
The militants were likely being taken to eastern Deir ez-Zor province where ISIS still controls territory.
In the summer, the Coalition opposed the evacuation of a reported more than 300 ISIS fighters with their families from the Syria-Lebanon border to the Middle Euphrates River Valley in southern Deir ez-Zor province.
The SDF expects to complete military operations and be in full control of Raqqa within a matter of days.
Last updated at 12:16 pm