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Battle to free Raqqa puts coalition up against booby-traps, car bombs and mines

Hollie McKay

The operation to liberate the ISIS Syrian stronghold of Raqqa has entered its third month, and while the U.S. and its partners have largely depleted the enemy ranks - but lethal danger lurks throughout the city.

There are about 1,500 ISIS fighters left in Raqqa, a big reduction from around 5,000 less than two months ago, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve – the U.S.-led coalition tasked to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But Raqqa is still teeming with landmines and booby traps, many set by fleeing jihadists.

“Eighty percent of the engagement the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has had has been with IEDs, whether they be vehicle-born IEDs, inside houses, static vehicles and even IEDs planted inside corpses,” Dillion told Fox News. “Those have been the proponents of how ISIS is fighting in Raqqa so far.”

The SDF is the primary ground fighting force the U.S. is partnering with to defeat ISIS in Syria. The roughly 55,000-strong group – a coalescence of both Arab and Kurdish combatants with a significant portion of them from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – have endured countless casualties in the bid to free the self-styled caliphate capital.

Compared to Mosul, the recently liberated Iraqi city in which ISIS relied heavily on civilians used as human shields, Dillion observed they have seen less of those tactics and more of a focus on bombs and blasts.

“There is less coherence in direct fire engagements, less leadership and a lot more disarray in Raqqa – but what ISIS is lacking in those departments they have made up for with just the sheer number of IEDs they have put throughout the city,” he said.

The terrorist army is believed to have numerous IED factories in and around Raqqa. The factories are heavily guarded with human shields, but when their explosive-laden armored vehicles leave, the become targets for airstrikes.

“Everything just blows up in and around it,” Dillion said.

ISIS is also reported to be setting off explosives via motion detection technology and using drones to drop munitions on SDF forces encircling the city. The State Department has cautioned that the use of mines is so widespread, it could take years to clear Raqqa of mines and other dangerous remnants of war once the liberation is complete.

It has also prompted the operation to significantly slow down. Dillon noted that the first two weeks of the Raqqa mission – launched on June 6 – saw the SDF gobble up terrain at a “lightning fast” pace. Since then, they have made smaller but still crucial territorial gains. Three weeks ago, the SDF had taken back 43 percent of Raqqa and now they have control of about 50 percent.

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Mustafa Bali, a representative for the SDF, told Fox News that their forces this week have pushed ISIS fighters into two main areas, but have come up against IEDs and underground tunnels that “help move dormant sleeper cells into refugee camps” and launch attacks.

“It’s a very complex campaign which calls for a variety of multi-tasking combat units as well as strong coordination with our coalition partners,” Bali said.

The remaining ISIS fighters in Raqqa are there to “fight to the death,” said Zagros – a spokesperson for the Kurdish militia YPG in Syria.

“ISIS still has plenty of weapons – AK47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and they are still using advanced equipment captured from the Iraqi forces when they invaded Mosul,” Zagros said. “Plus they have received additional weapons that have been smuggled in.”

While Raqqa may soon be liberated, it may not be salvaged. But what is left of the prized ancient city, Zagros noted, is little beyond rubble and ruins.

“It is totally destroyed,” he added. “Just the name is remaining.”

Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay