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US-backed militias in final push against IS in Raqqa

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sit inside a vehicle in Raqqa

US-backed militias battled foreign fighters defending the last pocket of Islamic State’s one-time Syrian capital of Raqqa on Monday, bringing their four-month campaign for the city to the brink of victory.

A Reuters correspondent saw smoke rising above the city and heard machinegun and mortar fire.

A field commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in Raqqa said he expected the operation to end on Monday. The US-led coalition supporting them said it could not put a timeline on the battle.

A convoy of Syrian Islamic State fighters left Raqqa on Saturday night with their families, leaving only 200-300 foreign jihadists to mount a last stand, according to the SDF.

The SDF is now poised to end Islamic State’s rule over a city where it launched a string of lightning victories in 2014 and plotted attacks on civilian targets across the West.

Its defeat in Raqqa mirrors its collapse across Iraq and Syria, where its enemies have driven it from cities, killed its leaders in air strikes and regained the oil fields that funded its self-declared caliphate.

Islamic State lost Mosul in Iraq, its largest city and most prized possession, after months of fighting in July.

The group, which at its height ruled millions of people in both countries, is now forced back in Syria into a strip of the Euphrates valley south of Deir al-Zor and desert on each side.

“We have conducted some (air) strikes in the last 24 hours, but I suspect that that will pick up here very soon with the SDF advancing into the final remaining areas of the city,” said coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon.

The coalition has supported the SDF with air power and special forces throughout its Raqqacampaign, which began in November with an offensive to isolate the city.

The battle inside Raqqa started in June, and the intense air strikes and street-to-street fighting drove many of its people to refugee camps and left much of the city a mess of concrete debris.

The commander in Raqqa described Monday’s fighting as “a clearing operation” and said he expected it to be completed by the end of the day with the SDF controlling the whole city.

Ilham Ahmed, a senior Kurdish leader who co-chairs the SDF’s political affiliate, said she expected the end of the offensive to be declared within hours, but Dillon said he could not put a timeline on the operation.

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