Foreign fighters from the Islamic State group may have escaped the Syrian city of Raqa shortly before its recapture, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the jihadists said on Tuesday.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that more than 3,000 civilians had evacuated the city on Oct. 14 under a deal negotiated between officials from the Raqa Civil Council and Syrian I.S. fighters, days before victory over the jihadists was declared. The coalition said at the time that it was “very adamant” that foreign I.S. fighters not be allowed to leave Raqa, but the BBC reported on Monday that hundreds of I.S. fighters, including foreigners, as well as arms and ammunition, had been transported out of Raqa in a massive convoy assembled on Oct. 12.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told reporters that “out of the 3,500 civilians that came out of… Raqa at that time, approximately less than 300 were identified and screened as potential [I.S.] fighters.”
“In the course of that screening, there were four foreign fighters that were identified and were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces,” he said.
Dillon said that the agreement with the SDF was that the photos and fingerprints of all men of fighting age would be checked to prevent known jihadists from escaping, but that “I can’t say with a 100 percent certainty that every single fighter was identified coming out of Raqa.”
“Whether or not there were some of these fighters that were… able to move in with the civilians or as a local [I.S.] affiliate, that… could have been the case,” he said. When the convoy left Raqa, it was tracked by coalition drones, but the decision was made not to strike it due to the presence of civilians, Dillon said.
I.S. lost control of Raqa—once its primary Syrian bastion—on Oct. 17 after a months-long battle with the SDF, the latest in a long series of defeats suffered by the jihadist group.