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US rules out negotiated ISIS withdrawal from Syria’s Raqqa

Syrians displaced from the city of Deir Ezzor arrive on the outskirts of Raqa on October 11, 2017. Talks are taking place on the safe exit of civilians trapped in Syria's Raqa, as US-backed forces prepare a final push to recapture the city from the Islamic State group. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Talks are taking place about the safe exit of civilians trapped in Syria's Raqa, as US-backed forces prepare a final push to recapture the city from the Islamic State group.

BEIRUT — The US-led coalition battling the Islamic State group said Wednesday that it won’t accept a negotiated withdrawal for hundreds of IS militants holed up in the Syrian city of Raqqa, once the extremists’ de facto capital.

The remarks by coalition spokesman, Colonel Ryan Dillon, came as coalition allies were working out ways to safely evacuate an estimated 4,000 civilians who remain trapped in the city.

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The coalition has said ISIS militants are holding some civilians as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly damaged by the fighting, and activists have reported that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed there since June.

The United Nations estimates 8,000 people are trapped in Raqqa, and said September was the worst month in 2017 for civilians in Syria.

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Dillon said the Raqqa Civil Council, a local administration of Arab and Kurdish officials, was leading the discussions to ensure the safe evacuation of civilians. However, it was not clear with whom the council is speaking inside Raqqa. A Kurdish-led force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is leading the battle on the ground.

A negotiated withdrawal ‘‘is absolutely something that we as a coalition would not be a part of or agree with,’’ Dillon added. Between 300 and 400 militants are believed to be holed up in about 1.5 square miles of Raqqa, including in the city’s stadium and a hospital, he said.

The stadium is believed to be used by the militants as weapons warehouse and a prison, while the hospital is one of their major headquarters.

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Dillon said that in the last three weeks, up to 15 militants, including a senior leader, have surrendered in Raqqa, a trend also seen in Iraq. Dillon said another leading figure was arrested when he tried to escape among a group of civilians.

Airstrikes on the city appeared to have decreased recently, apparently to allow for the evacuations. The coalition reported just five airstrikes near Raqqa on Tuesday.

The extremist group has suffered a series of major battlefield defeats in both Iraq and Syria in recent months, but has continued to stage attacks far from the front lines.

At least three suicide bombers struck outside the police headquarters in central Damascus on Wednesday, killing at least two people and wounding others, according to the Syrian interior minister.

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