The Latest: UN says Raqqa liberation from IS is game changer
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments in Syria as Islamic State militants make their last stand in the city of Raqqa (all times local):
A regional director of the United Nations’ food-assistance branch has described the liberation of the Syrian stronghold of Raqqa from Islamic State militants as a “game- changer” for humanitarian efforts in Syria.
World Food Program Middle East Director Muhannad Hadi told The Associated Press in the Australian city of Canberra: “Absolutely from a humanitarian view, it’s a game-changer for us in the way we operate.”
Hadi says: “This should open for us more humanitarian space. WFP has been preparing for that day.”
He says: “We’re ready to assist the people as they leave Raqqa and once the situation in Raqqa has become secure enough for our teams to go there, definitely the World Food Program and its partners ... will make all the efforts to go to Raqqa and to give all the needed support to the people.”
The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition says pockets of Islamic State militants remain in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
The remarks come as U.S.-backed Syrian forces and their allies on the ground are going through the city’s newly liberated areas, searching for land mines and sleeper cells.
Col. Ryan Dillon said on Tuesday that the Syrian Democratic Forces have seized the last strongholds of the militant group in Raqqa but are not done securing them.
He says the coalition has not carried out any airstrikes in the city for three days to allow for the evacuation of civilians and for militants to surrender.
Dillon says: “We have not received official reporting to say Raqqa is cleared.”
He says that with the fall of Raqqa, the militants will be denied their “wellspring” that provided planning and support for terror operations in Syria and Iraq and around the world.
Syria’s state news agency says government forces have captured several villages in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour from the Islamic State group.
SANA says government troops and their allies on Tuesday liberated the villages of Mouhassan, Bouomar and Bouleil that were once strongholds of the extremist group.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported earlier that government forces captured all areas between the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and the town of Mayadeen to the south.
The Observatory also reported that government forces now control more than 90 percent of the city of Deir el-Zour, where a major offensive is underway to capture remaining IS-held neighborhoods.
The government gains in eastern Syria came as U.S.-backed Syrian forces liberated the city of Raqqa that was once the de facto capital of IS.
The loss of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour would hand yet another major blow to IS, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq.
An international charity group says tens of thousands of people who fled the northern Syrian city of Raqqa are in bad need of aid and that the “camps are bursting at the seams.”
Save the Children’s statement on Tuesday came as U.S.-backed Syrian fighters said they liberated Raqqa. The city suffered major destruction since early June when the offensive against the Islamic State group there began.
The charity says some 270,000 people who fled the Raqqa fighting are still in critical need of aid. With the high levels of destruction reported in and around Raqqa, most families have nowhere to return home and are likely to stay in camps for months or years to come.
Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s director for Syria, described conditions in the camps where displaced from Raqqa are staying as “miserable and families do not have enough food, water or medicine.”
Khush said the “children have suffered for years” and that they “must not be forgotten once the fighting subsides.”
A commander with the U.S.-backed Syrian forces battling the Islamic State group says the city of Raqqa has been liberated from Islamic State militants and that combing operations are underway to clear the city of land mines and extremist sleeper cells.
Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo told The Associated Press on Tuesday that there are no longer clashes going on in the city.
Sillo says a formal declaration will follow befitting “the fall of the capital of terrorism.”
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.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the IS militants are still holed up inside the stadium.
The city of Raqqa fell to the Islamic State group in 2014 and became the de facto capital of their self-styled caliphate.
The U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces battling the Islamic State group in Syria say they have captured the city hospital in Raqqa, which served as an IS headquarters.
The facility was one of the militants’ last holdouts in Raqqa and had doubled as a hospital and an IS command center.
The capture of the hospital on Tuesday leaves IS militants cornered in and around the notorious municipal stadium in Raqqa, once the group’s de facto capital.
Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, says 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital. He says fighting is still underway with militants who had refused to surrender.
Raqqa’s stadium also served as an arms depot and one of the Islamic State militants’ largest jails in their self-styled caliphate.