(AP) BEIRUT, Lebanon — US-backed Syrian forces liberated the city of Raqqa from Islamic State militants on Tuesday, a senior commander for the force said, adding that clearing operations were underway to remove land mines left behind and search for the extremist group’s sleeper cells.
Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo told The Associated Press that there are no longer clashes in the city, which had served as the extremist group’s headquarters and self-proclaimed capital of their so-called “caliphate” for more than three years.
A formal declaration will be made from the city soon, after the clearing operations end. Raqqa is still full of land mines, Sillo added, but fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces are now in control of the former “capital of terrorism.”
On Monday, the head of a police force affiliated with the SDF, was killed in a land mine explosion in the city, he said.
Losing Raqqa is 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.
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.
Earlier Tuesday, the Kurdish-led SDF forces captured the city hospital, the other last remaining IS holdout in Raqqa. The facility had doubled as a hospital and an IS command center.
Its capture left IS militants cornered in and around the notorious stadium, which they had turned into a huge prison where they incarcerated anyone who opposed their brutal rule. After Sillo’s statement, it was not immediately clear if the IS militants were still inside the stadium.
Also earlier, Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital.
“The stadium is a huge structure with underground rooms and tunnels. There are also buildings around it” still under the control of IS, he said and added that “there is nothing decisive today.”
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 building, which appeared riddled with bullets and partly blackened from a fire.
A senior Kurdish commander 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. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The US-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.