Troops surround last IS stronghold in Raqqa

Syria - sky News - The Raqqa front line is a crazily chaotic place. The soldiers pick their way through mountains of rubble, running forward from filthy temporary bases theyve set up in broken high-rise buildings.

Most are in their teens or early twenties, armed with AK-47s and homemade balls of grenades slung over their shoulders.

The combined partnership of Kurds, Arabs and Christians which make up the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are battling the remnants of the Islamic State in Raqqa, and it is having to be done street by street and house by house.

They have surrounded the citys large main hospital, which is believed to be the last major stronghold of IS extremists. One commander told me he estimated there were between 40 and 80 militants battling inside.

But the extremists who made Raqqa their capital in Syria about three years ago have had plenty of time to dig a labyrinth of tunnels which they are using to great effect. Theyre able to crawl back behind the troops and mount surprise attacks.

Theyve also laid mines and planted booby traps. It means the soldiers constantly pushing forward in small groups of five or six know they could be running into IS traps.

Two of the "bases" we witnessed where troops have moved in were former medical centres. The corridors are now strewn with piles of festering food, empty water bottles, filth, blood and excrement. The steaming heat means nothing lasts long and the smell is nauseating. The militants were there before them.

In the basement of another building, after weaving our way past dusty upturned, crumpled hospital beds, we see jerrycans stockpiled in a corner ready to be turned into bombs. Several are dotted around the building, already primed.

So the remaining IS diehards in Raqqas main hospital, despite being outnumbered and despite attacks on the national hospital from multiple SDF fronts, are still holding the coalition troops at bay - days after they expected to overrun the centre.

In among this mayhem, there appear to be few civilians left.

But there continue to be concerns that thousands may be trapped somewhere, held as human shields by the extremists.

The coalition says it has done its best to limit the damage to the citys infrastructure but from what we saw, there is little infrastructure left.

House after house, building after building is shattered, holes punched into them by rockets, artillery and gunfire. Amid the rubble, though, there are snapshots of former lives - childrens clothes, books, broken crockery.

In one of the former homes, we saw the measuring table parents had stuck on the wall to measure their toddlers height progress. Children names were written either side.

There is the evidence of airstrikes everywhere in this built-up area. The SDF has the advantage of having support from the American administration which means theyre constantly supplied with fresh weapons, munitions and crucially, intelligence and technology.

Many of the commanders have satellite images of the city downloaded on iPads and phones theyre carrying. It enables them to pinpoint where their troops are and where the IS extremists are. They then relay the information back to their American partners who mount airstrikes and artillery attacks.

Tens of thousands of Raqqas former citizens have fled - into the countryside or taking refuge in sprawling IDP camps.

They have terrifying tales of IS cruelty but are also traumatised by the fighting. One man told Sky News: "We cant go back because everywhere is mined."

The retaking of Raqqa by the coalition soldiers will be a symbolic, crushing defeat for the Islamic militants who turned it into the centre of their strict caliphate in Syria.

It leaves just Deir ez-Zor left in Syria where the extremists have a territorial base. But no one - not the troops, nor the citizens - believe this spells the end for the militants and their particular brand of cruel ideology.

 

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