Local Sources: ISIS Withdrawal From Raqqa Agreed With Syrian Democratic Forces, Rejected By US

A smoke cloud billows during fighting at Raqqa city, Syria, 11 June 2017. (Photo: YOUSSEF RABIE YOUSSEF/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

Local mediation efforts between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the remaining Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Raqqa yielded an agreement with jihadists, allowing them to surrender and safely retreat to ISIS-held areas in Deir el-Zor province, Raqqa24 reported. United States reportedly refused to be party to this deal.

There has been no official confirmation of the talks, but the US military said on Wednesday it wouldn’t accept to be part of any negotiations with ISIS.

According to the deal reached on Tuesday, everyone was supposed to leave the city in the early hours of Wednesday, including the ISIS figthers. The militants would be allowed to carry light weapons and SDF would guarantee they wouldn’t be targeted by Russian, Syrian or US-led coalition’s airstrikes.

The latest reports suggest that the US military refused to pledge safety for jihadists, foreign fighters in particular. On Wednesday afternoon, Raqqa24 tweeted that the new round of negotiations in the town of Ayn Issa ended in agreement between militants and SDF, but it was not clear under which conditions.

According to the deal, there will be no clashes in the next few hours, and ISIS militants will be ecorted out of the city by SDF troops.

The US position was somewhat oficially confirmed by the Coalition’s spokesman, Colonel Ryan Dillon, who told Associated Press that the discussions about the militants focused on “unconditional surrender.”

“A negotiated withdrawal is absolutely something that we as a coalition would not be a part of or agree with,” Dillon said.

The unnamed source told Raqqa24 the first round of negotiations was conducted secretly a few days ago, between SDF, local leaders who fled the city and ISIS commanders. Once the agreement was reached and presented to SDF’s allies, the US allegedly asked to add new conditions – surrender of foreign fighters to SDF, recording fingerprints of all the jihadists and a guarantee that they would not join any military faction upon their release.

After these negotiations failed, heavy bombardment by US-led coalition continued and ISIS reportedly threatened to retaliate with attacks against the civilians.

Combined Joint Task Force announced on Tuesday that Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders were leading discussions to determine the best way to enable trapped civilians to escape the city. Dillon told Associated Press that there was “some good progress” and that at least 700 civilians had been evacuated since Monday.

Raqqa24 claimed the agreement with ISIS was abruptly accepted by all sides late Tuesday. According to their sources, the buses which would transport militants were gathering in the Assadiyah area north of Raqqa and the retreat would begin in the early hours of Wednesday. However, no evacuation took place.

The talks about the alleged deal came as Combined Joint Task Force announced it was preparing for final push in Raqqa, conducting 75 airstrikes in 2 days to prepare the field for SDF’s fround assault.

They also coincided with Russia’s open accusations of US-led coalition’s inefficiency and prolonged stalemate in the battle against ISIS militants still entrenched in several neighborhoods of Raqqa, Islamic State’s former Syrian capital. According to the latest estimates of the US military, SDF controls around 80 per cent of the city.

The estimates constantly vary between 80 and 90 per cent, as SDF hasn’t been able to take full control or make any serious advances in the remaining area for the past few weeks, despite regular clashes and heavy aerial bombardment.

Syrians, who fled the Islamic State group stronghold of Raqqa, ride with their belongings on a truck, in an area near the village of Balaban, south of Jarablus, Syria, 08 June 2017. (Photo: ZEIN AL-RIFAI/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

On the other hand, the existing advances came at a high cost of innocent lives, as thousands of civilians were caught in crossfire between US-backed coalition’s airstrikes and ground ‘building-to-building’ clashes between SDF and ISIS. The militants often used civilian infrastructure to wage attacks.

According to estimates of UK-based monitor Airwars, around one hundred civilians were killed in Raqqa for the past two weeks, while the death toll of the entire 4-month offensive has reached more than 1000.

REACH initiative estimated that around 8,000 civilians are still trapped in Raqqa city, without electricity, water, food and health services. While official sources say there are between 300 and 400 ISIS militants still entrenched in the city, Raqqa 24’s source said there 150 of them, mostly locals who joined the jihadists’ ranks.

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