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U.S. quietly let hundreds of ISIS fighters flee Raqqa

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A secret deal reportedly allowed some of the most notorious ISIS fighters to escape from a besieged Syrian city with their weapons. CBS News partner BBC News says 250 fighters were permitted to leave Raqqa. They got out with 3,500 family members to ISIS-controlled territory. According to the report, their convoy included nearly 50 rented trucks, 13 buses and more than 100 ISIS vehicles. Ten trucks were loaded with weapons, reported CBS News (US).

The BBC says the U.S. and British-led coalition knew about the deal, brokered by Syrian Democratic Forces, and monitored the exodus.

The world was told only a few dozen local fighters were being let go, no foreigners and no weapons, reports BBC News' Quentin Sommerville. But the trucks were crammed full of fighters, some wearing suicide belts. All were heavily armed.

After days of searching, Sommerville picked up the trail at a truck stop on the outskirts of Tabqa. There they discovered the drivers, all civilians, who drove ISIS to freedom. They'd been hired by the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

It was the longest journey of their lives. Their trucks were rigged with ISIS bombs, in case the deal collapsed. They'd been told they were picking up only a few hundred civilians, that it would be a quick job. They ended up driving day and night for three days.

This couldn't look like the Islamic State's escape to victory, so the SDF insisted there would be no flags and no banners. Instead, ISIS fighters sat boldly on top of the trucks. The axle of one truck was so overloaded with weaponry, it broke.

A Pentagon spokesman says the United States was not part of the deal, but also says the U.S. was not prepared to bomb buses full of women and children.

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The Russian Defense Ministry has said it has obtained evidence the US-led coalition provides support for the terrorist group Islamic State (outlawed in Russia), reported TASS (Russia).

"The Abu Kamal liberation operation conducted by the Syrian government army with air cover by the Russian Aerospace Force at the end of the last week revealed facts of direct cooperation and support for ISIS terrorists by the US-led ‘international coalition,’" the Russian Defense Ministry said.

The ministry showed photo shoots made by Russian unmanned aircraft on November 9 which show kilometers-long convoys of IS armed groups leaving Abu Kamal towards the Wadi es-Sabha passage on the Syrian-Iraqi border to avoid strikes by the Russian aviation and the government army.
The US refused to conduct airstrikes over the leaving IS convoy. "Americans peremptorily rejected to conduct airstrikes over the ISIS terrorists on the pretext of the fact that, according to their information, militants are yielding themselves prisoners to them and now are subject to the provisions of the Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War," the Russian Defense Ministry said.

The Defense Ministry specified that "the Russian force grouping command twice addressed the command of the US-led ‘international coalition’ with a proposal to carry out joint actions to destroy the retreating ISIS convoys on the eastern bank of the Euphrates."

The Americans failed to answer the Russian side’s question on why IS militants leaving in combat vehicles heavily equipped are regrouping in the area controlled by the international coalition to conduct new strikes over the Syrian army near Abu Kamal, the Russian Defense Ministry stressed.

The ministry also said that the coalition’s aviation tried to disturb Russia’s Aerospace Forces near Abu Kamal to ensure safe exit of terrorists.
"The coalition’s aviation tried to create obstacles for the aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces in this area to safely shield militants of the Islamic State , who are leaving Abu Kamal, from the strikes of government forces," the ministry said. To this aim, the coalition’s attack aircraft entered the airspace over the 15-km zone around the city to hamper the Russian aircraft’ mission, it said.

According to the Defense Ministry, the United States provided cover for Islamic State militants to use them in attempts to attain its own aims in the Middle East.
"There is indisputable evidence that the United States pretends it is waging irreconcilable struggle against international terrorism in front of the international community, while in reality it provides cover for the combat-ready Islamic State groups to let them regain strength, regroup themselves and advance US interests in the Middle East," the ministry said.

According to the Defense Ministry, the United States provided cover for Islamic State militants to use them in attempts to attain its own aims in the Middle East.
"There is indisputable evidence that the United States pretends it is waging irreconcilable struggle against international terrorism in front of the international community, while in reality it provides cover for the combat-ready Islamic State groups to let them regain strength, regroup themselves and advance US interests in the Middle East," the ministry said.

The Syrian government troops’ offensive against the city of Abu Kamal has disrupted the US plans to create pro-American authorities to govern the territories on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

"The Syrian troops’ rapid offensive in Abu Kamal has derailed the US plans to set up ‘pro-American’ authorities to govern the territories on the eastern bank of the Euphrates uncontrolled by the Syrian government," the ministry said.

Militants of the Islamic State acting under the guise of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could act as the local "pro-American forces" allegedly controlling the city. The flags used by Syrian Democratic Forces units found in Abu Kamal confirm that, the Russian Defense Ministry noted.

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If Russia has a legitimate complaint about U.S. forces letting ISIS militants slip through the closing net and escape their territory in Syria, it appears to have undermined its own argument by laying out the charges with bogus "evidence." – reported CBS News (US).

Russia's Ministry of Defense on Tuesday alleged in various statements cited by the country's state-run media, and in social media posts, that the U.S. military "provides cover" for ISIS militants on the ground.

The allegations stem from the recent battle for the Syrian town of Boukamal, on the border with Iraq. Last week, Syria's government declared the town liberated from ISIS after a fierce fight for what had been the Sunni extremists' last urban stronghold in the country.

The Russian MoD tweeted on Tuesday a message accusing the U.S. of "direct cooperation and support" for ISIS. The tweet offered four grainy images as "irrefutable evidence" of that alleged support, each purportedly showing an "ISIS automobile convoy" that had been allowed to leave Boukamal by American forces.

"These facts are conclusive evidence that the United States, while imitating an uncompromising fight against international terrorism for the global community, in fact provides cover for Islamic State units," the defense ministry said.

But as Syrian war analyst Elliot Higgins and other online sleuths pointed out on Twitter, at least three of the images appear to be poor attempts to manufacture "evidence"; one is a screengrab from a computer game, and two others are taken from video or images that came out of neighboring Iraq, a year before the Boukamal battle.

"Having done some digging the images appear to have come from a video game called; 'AC-130 Gunship Simulator - Convoy engagement,' made by a company called; byte conveyor studios," said Higgins.

His own evidence was more convincing; footage from the game posted on YouTube clearly shows an uncropped version of the same image tweeted by the Russian ministry. The Russian tweet failed even to crop out completely the English language text at the top of the computer game screen, which identifies it as "DEVELOPMENT FOOTAGE."

The tweet with the fraudulent images was deleted from the Russian MoD's feed later Tuesday, but not before drawing an onslaught of abuse and ridicule from other users on the social network.

Higgins, whose Bellingcat organization spends thousands of man-hours pouring over open-source information to prove and disprove claims from the Syrian battlefield, said in a subsequent post that the use of the bogus images proves Russia's claims about Syria cannot be taken seriously.

Prior to Russia's allegations on Tuesday, there had been no solid claims that the U.S. military was letting ISIS fighters -- there were an estimated 2,500 to 3,500 ISIS militants around Boukamal, reportedly including some senior figures -- escape. However, local opposition groups and monitors said militants did flee the battle to the north, taking refuge in a handful of towns along the east and west banks of the Euphrates River between al-Mayadeen and Boukamal.

And while is no evidence to support Russia's claim that the U.S. is directly supporting ISIS on the battlefield, if Moscow wanted to portray the U.S. as somehow giving some of the extremists a pass, it could have just cited BBC News.

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Tags: u.s., russia, syria
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