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Site of IS beheadings in Raqqa seized by Kurdish-led force
BEIRUT (AP) -- Raqqa's infamous public square where Islamic State militants used to perform brutal executions and beheadings has been captured Monday by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force fighting the extremist group in Syria, as officials say they expect the city to fall "within a few days."
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said clashes at Al-Naim (Paradise) Square have raged since Sunday as IS put up a fight. Nine IS fighters were killed and 12 surrendered, he said.
Paradise Square became synonymous with the group's reign of terror. After declaring their self-styled caliphate in Raqqa, the militants used the central city square to carry out public beheadings and executions, forcing the 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 executed 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 (Jahim) Square.
A senior Kurdish commander in the city said the SDF fighters have not yet seen what the group left behind in the square but called its capture symbolic. "The group showed off its might in this square. Now it is broken and is chased out of the heart of its alleged capital," the commander said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
SDF fighters launched an operation to retake the last IS-held pocket of the city after some 275 militants and their family members surrendered over the weekend. The extremists still hold about 10 percent of Raqqa, including the hospital and the main stadium, which lie off Paradise Square. The stadium is believed to be used by the militants as a jail and an arms depot.
The commander said fighting ebbed and flowed in the last hours to allow the remaining civilians to leave the area. The U.S.-led coalition said there were no airstrikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours starting noon Sunday.
Activists said those who surrendered were taken to an SDF-run prison in the nearby town of Tabqa, where they are being interrogated before facing trial. Most of the remaining IS fighters in the city are believed to be foreigners.
The commander said the SDF was searching for wanted IS foreign fighters sought by European and other countries but that none had surrendered or were detained so far.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had previously reported that among the fighters remaining in Raqqa is a militant who planned attacks in France that killed and wounded dozens of people, saying he was a French or Belgian citizen of North African origin.
"We distributed pictures, so they can check if they (foreign fighters) are among the killed or wounded. We are looking into it. But we have no verification so far," the commander said.
Bali said IS used two car bombs to push back advancing troops, but they were detonated before they reached their destination. He said at least three SDF fighters were killed.
"We believe that it will be all over within a few days," Bali said. "Those (Islamic State) fighters who are still inside will fight to the death."
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces and their allies began a major offensive on IS-held neighborhoods in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, according to state TV and the Observatory.
The Observatory said government forces are pushing through three neighborhoods under the cover of airstrikes by Russian warplanes.
The move by government forces comes just two days after Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops captured the IS stronghold of Mayadeen, south of Deir el-Zour, in another blow to the extremists in eastern Syria.
The loss of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour would hand yet another major blow to IS, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi forces captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul - the largest ever held by IS - in July, and Syria's Mayadeen, near the border with Iraq, was retaken by government forces on Saturday.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.