Syrians hoping to return home to Raqqa now that the city has been liberated from the clutches of the Islamic State terror group are being told to wait indefinitely.
Coalition officials say the problem comes from potentially thousands of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps littered across the city, some already taking a toll.
“Civilians deaths have already been reported by some of those who have tried to return,” Major General James Jarrard, commander of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said Tuesday, briefing Pentagon reporters from Baghdad.
“It's still not safe,” he added. “There are so many out there, nobody moves around very freely.”
200,000 fled Raqqa
Aid groups estimate more than 200,000 people fled Raqqa since efforts to retake the city gained steam. And there may be a temptation for some of them to try to return as winter brings rain and colder temperatures.
But officials caution even the weather is wracking havoc on the city.
“The other day we had the first significant rainstorm in that part of Syria,” said Jarrard. “There are so many explosive devices still left, and the rain was hard and actually causing some of those explosive devices to detonate.”
Work to clear the city of IEDs is under way, with private contractors joining the Syrian Democratic forces to speed up the process though the coalition refuses to estimate when the work will be done.
More progress had been made in some of the outer edges of the city, as well as its suburbs, than in the city center, where some of the heaviest fighting took place.
Most Islamic State fighters gone
Despite the threat from IEDs, booby traps and unexploded munitions, officials say IS itself poses little danger.
Raqqa itself is “void of Daesh fighters,” said the coalition’s Jarrard, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.
And outside of the group’s last remaining stronghold in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, its reach has been limited.
“It is a very low threat of any Daesh attacks or any Daesh period in northeast Syria,” said Jarrard. “Once you get away from the front lines it is a relatively secure place.”
U.S. officials estimate Islamic State may still have as many as 7,000 fighters at its disposal across Syria and Iraq. But they say the group is on the run, “hiding in basements or holes in the ground or caves.”