ISIL FLEES LAST STRONG­HOLD.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - NP - SARAH EL DEEB

BEIRUT • Is­lamic State mil­i­tants with­drew Thurs­day from their last strong­hold in Syria, a strate­gic town near the bor­der with Iraq, fol­low­ing a gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive that has ef­fec­tively left the ex­trem­ist group’s fight­ers dis­persed in vil­lages and small towns in the desert.

The Syr­ian mil­i­tary de­clared the town lib­er­ated after in­tense bat­tles that killed a large num­ber of mil­i­tants, in­clud­ing lead­ers. The mil­i­tary said they are still chas­ing other ISIL mil­i­tants in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions in the desert.

“The lib­er­a­tion of Bouka­mal is of great im­por­tance be­cause it is a dec­la­ra­tion of the fall of this group’s project in the re­gion gen­er­ally and the col­lapse of its sup­port­ers’ il­lu­sions to di­vide it, con­trol large parts of the Syria-Iraq bor­ders and se­cure sup­ply routes be­tween the two coun­tries,” said Army spokesman Gen. Ali May houb in a tele­vised state­ment.

Syr­ian pro-gov­ern­ment me­dia said Syr­ian troops had clashed with rem­nants of ISIL mil­i­tants in the town after they en­tered it late Wed­nes­day. On Thurs­day, they re­ported the town clear of ISIL fight­ers.

Pro-Syr­ian me­dia re­ported the town was lib­er­ated. Al-Ikhbariya TV’s jour­nal­ist re­ported from the road to the town, joy­fully break­ing out on cam­era: “Daesh is fin­ished. Live.”

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said gov­ern­ment forces and al­lied troops, in­clud­ing Iraqi forces who linked from across the bor­der, are comb­ing through Bouka­mal after ISIL mil­i­tants with­drew.

With the col­lapse of ISIL in Bouka­mal, Is­lamic State mil­i­tants have no ma­jor ter­ri­to­rial con­trol in Syria and Iraq and are be­lieved to have dis­persed in the desert west and east of the Euphrates River. U.S. of­fi­cials es­ti­mated that there were be­tween 2,500 and 3,500 ISIL mil­i­tants around Bouka­mal and that lead­ing mem­bers of the group were also be­lieved to have taken refuge in the town. The group has a small pres­ence near the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus.

ISIL has suf­fered con­sec­u­tive de­feats at the hands of sep­a­rate but si­mul­ta­ne­ous of­fen­sives in Iraq and Syria by the Rus­sian-backed Syr­ian forces and al­lied mili­tias as well as U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syr­ian fight­ers.

De­spite its fall, the group’s me­dia ap­pa­ra­tus has re­mained ac­tive and its fight­ers are likely to keep up their in­sur­gency from desert ar­eas.

The swift fall of Bouka­mal in eastern Deir el-Zour prov­ince was ac­cel­er­ated after Iraqi forces seized Qaim, the town across the bor­der last week­end, also con­trol­ling a strate­gic cross­ing be­tween the two coun­tries.

A se­nior Iraqi of­fi­cial said there was an agree­ment Tues­day to send Iraqi paramil­i­taries to Syria to take part in the Bouka­mal op­er­a­tion. The of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak to re­porters.

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