Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

Above, fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces inspect the bunker of the Daesh militants under a stadium in Raqqa, Syria on October 18. (Reuters)
Updated 20 October 2017
0

Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

RAQQA, Syria: US-backed forces who captured Raqqa from the Daesh group prepared to hand the Syrian city over to a civilian authority, with some of their fighters already headed to the next battle.
Inside the city, positions that had long been manned by fighters of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were abandoned, though some remained in the central Al-Naim square, dancing and ululating as they celebrated their victory.
The SDF battled for more than four months, with US-led coalition support, to capture the city that was once the de facto Syrian capital of Daesh’s self-styled “caliphate.”
They announced the end of combat on Tuesday, though operations to clear explosives and seek out sleeper cells were ongoing.
Raqqa’s capture leaves the jihadists with little remaining territory in Syria, most of it in neighboring Deir Ezzor province, where some SDF fighters were already headed to carry on the campaign.
“Some of the forces withdrew, others will remain in the city until we finish the minor combing operations, then the city will be handed over to the civil council,” said SDF commander Rojda Felat.
“After the end of military operations, a large part of the forces have moved out of Raqqa to other areas, including Deir Ezzor,” added Mustefa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF.
At least 16 civilians including several children were killed in air strikes in Deir Ezzor Thursday believed to have been carried out by Russian jets, a monitor said.
“The civilians were killed as they tried to cross the Euphrates river near the town of Abu Kamal,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Abu Kamal is one of the few remaining urban strongholds of Daesh in Syria.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said two days of mopping-up operations in Raqqa had so far uncovered no additional Daesh fighters, but that interrogations of those who were captured or surrendered during the battle were ongoing.
“SDF intelligence is investigating them, including a number of foreigners,” he told AFP.
The city’s capture Tuesday came after the SDF seized Daesh’s last two main positions, the municipal stadium and national hospital, in quick succession.
Both sites have been heavily mined and remain to be cleared, SDF commanders said.
“There are bodies inside the hospital itself that we haven’t yet removed because of the mines,” said commander Clara Raqqa.
Responsibility for the city, which lies in ruins and empty of civilians, will be assumed by the Raqqa Civil Council, a body of local officials formed six months ago.
The official handover is expected to come as early as Friday, but the body has already spent months working on reconstruction plans.
They will inherit responsibility for a ghost town that lacks basic services and infrastructure.
On the city’s streets, blankets that had been hung in front of windows to shield residents from the view of snipers fluttered in the wind, but there was no movement otherwise.
A few scrawny cats and dogs picked their way over the rubble that is strewn across the city, up to 80 percent of which was described as uninhabitable by the UN last month.
In Al-Naim square, fighters of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the female branch of the YPG, gathered to hold a press conference celebrating their contribution to the city’s capture.
Some of the battle’s commanders were female, a point of pride for Kurdish forces, particularly given Daesh’s infamous oppression of women.
“Raqqa was liberated by the will of free women,” the YPJ said in a statement.
SDF flags now cover Al-Naim, where the jihadists once displayed the severed heads of their enemies.
In the center of the square, a large yellow flag has been raised, featuring a photograph of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan heads the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, where it is considered a “terrorist” group.
He is idolized by many in the YPG, which Ankara says is the Syrian branch of the PKK.
Daesh captured mostly Sunni Arab Raqqa in 2014, and under its rule the city became infamous for gruesome abuses and as a planning center for attacks abroad.
Its loss deals a major blow to the jihadists’ dreams of statehood, and comes after their July defeat in Iraq’s second city Mosul, their other major urban stronghold.


Israel frees Turk after charging her with aiding Hamas

Updated 4 min 15 sec ago
0

Israel frees Turk after charging her with aiding Hamas

JERUSALEM: Israel has released a Turkish woman who had been arrested while visiting on a tourist visa and accused of helping the Palestinian group Hamas, in a case that angered Ankara and Israel, her lawyer said on Monday.
Turkey threatened retaliation after Ebru Ozkan’s detention last month. The ex-allies have long been at loggerheads over Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and Jerusalem’s status.
Ozkan’s lawyer, Omar Khamaisi, said she flew to Istanbul on Sunday, a week after an Israeli military court indicted her. An appeals court had ordered her freed and returned her passport, he told Reuters, adding: “The indictment still stands, but I think that will be canceled too.”
The Turkish news agency Anadlou quoted Ozkan, upon landing, as thanking President Tayyip Erdogan for having been “kind enough to be very interested in my case.”
Commenting on the decision to release Ozkan, an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “There are a number of factors behind this decision, including the amount of time she had already spent in detention and the fact that the charges weren’t especially grave in the first place.”
The official declined to be drawn on whether Turkish diplomatic pressure might also have been a factor.
Ozkan was held at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport last month while trying to board her original flight home after a visit that took her to Jerusalem, whose Al-Aqsa Mosque draws pilgrims from the few Muslim countries that have relations with Israel.
She was charged with helping smuggling money and packages to Hamas, which is classed as a terrorist group in Israel and the West, but not by NATO-power Turkey. Ozkan’s lawyer dismissed the charges as baseless and, potentially, politically motivated.
Hamas did not comment on the case.
Turkey’s government had cited Israel’s treatment of Ozkan and several other detained Turkish visitors as among “inhumane policies” that were souring bilateral ties.
Turkey vocally opposed a US decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinians want a state with a capital in eastern parts of the city where Al-Aqsa, as well as major Jewish and Christian shrines, are housed.