Kurdish female militia vows to keep fighting IS militants
BEIRUT (AP) -- A Kurdish female militia that took part in freeing the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group said on Thursday it will continue the fight to liberate women from the extremists' brutal rule.
In a highly symbolic gesture, Nisreen Abdullah of the Women's Protection Units, or YPJ, made the statement in Raqqa's Paradise Square - the same place where IS fighters once carried out public killings.
She said the all-women force, which is part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces battling IS, lost 30 fighters in the four-month battle to liberate Raqqa.
Under the rule of the Islamic State group, women were forced to wear all-encompassing veils and could be stoned to death for adultery. Hundreds of women and girls from Iraq's Yazidi minority were captured and forced into sexual slavery.
Raqqa was center stage of IS' brutality, the de facto capital of the militants self-proclaimed "caliphate."
"We have achieved our goal, which was to pound the strongholds of terrorism in its capital, liberate women and restore honor to Yazidi women by liberating dozens of slaves," Abdullah said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of several factions including the YPJ, said on Tuesday that military operations in Raqqa have ended and that their fighters have taken full control of the city.
The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, tweeted on Thursday that the SDF has cleared 98 percent of the city, adding that some militants remain holed up in a small pocket east of the stadium. Dillon added that buildings and tunnels are being checked for holdouts.
Even as the guns have gone quiet, preparations for a reconstruction are underway.
In Saudi Arabia, a state-linked news website said a high-level Saudi official was in Raqqa to discuss the kingdom's "prominent role in reconstruction" efforts. The Okaz site quoted unnamed Saudi sources as saying that Thamer al-Sabhan met with members of Raqqa's city civil. The website said the United Arab Emirates will also play a role in rebuilding.
The report included a photograph of al-Sabhan, apparently in Raqqa with Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy for the coalition battling the IS. Saudi Arabia is a member of the coalition. Al-Sabhan was previously ambassador to Iraq, but left amid threats from Iranian-backed militias.
The SDF is expected to hold a news conference in Raqqa on Friday during which the city will be declared free of extremists, for the first time in nearly four years.
The fall of Raqqa marks a major defeat for IS, which has seen its territories steadily shrink since last year. IS took over Raqqa, located on the Euphrates River, in January 2014, and transformed it into the epicenter of its brutal rule.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad met with a visiting Iranian army commander on Thursday to discuss bilateral relations, the state news agency SANA said. The Iranian general also conveyed a message from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
SANA said Assad and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri focused on military cooperation, "which has witnessed a qualitative development during the war that Syria and its allies, mainly Iran, are waging against terrorism" in Syria.
Iran has been one of Assad's strongest supporters since the country's crisis began more than six years ago and has sent thousands of Iranian-backed militiamen to boost his troops against opponents.
SANA quoted Bagheri as saying that the aim of his visit is to "put a joint strategy on continuing coordination and cooperation at the military level." He also stressed Iran's commitment to help in the reconstruction process in Syria.
Bagheri met with several Syrian officials on Wednesday, including Defense Minister Fahd Jasem al-Freij, and Syrian army commander, Maj. Gen. Ali Ayyoub.
Meanwhile the al-Qaida linked Levant Liberation Committee released a rare video of its leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani, showing him speaking with his fighters. The release comes two weeks after Russia said it seriously wounded him in an airstrike.
The video appears to have been shot before an al-Qaida offensive on a central government-controlled village on Oct. 6. Two days before the attack, Russia's military claimed that al-Golani was wounded in a Russian airstrike and had fallen into a coma. The military offered no evidence of al-Golani's purported condition.
The al-Qaida-linked group subsequently denied al-Golani was hurt, insisting he is in excellent health.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.