Heavy clashes in fi­nal push against IS in Syria

■ Ji­hadists now hold on to 4 sq km on bor­der near Iraq

Deccan Chronicle - - World -

Hasakeh, Syria, Feb. 10: US-backed forces were locked in fierce fight­ing on Sun­day as they pressed the bat­tle against the last shred of the Is­lamic State group’s “caliphate” in east­ern Syria.

The Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), sup­ported by a US-led coali­tion, an­nounced a fi­nal push to re­take the ji­hadist pocket late on Satur­day, af­ter a pause of more than a week to al­low civil­ians to flee.

An SDF field com­man­der said his fight­ers were bat­tling their way for­wards on Sun­day morn­ing. “There are heavy clashes at the mo­ment. We have launched an as­sault and the fight­ers are ad­vanc­ing,” he said.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor group said coali­tion planes and ar­tillery bom­barded ji­hadist po­si­tions.

“The bat­tle is on­go­ing. There were heavy clashes this morn­ing, with land­mines go­ing off,” said Rami Ab­del Rah­man, the head of the Bri­tain-based Ob­ser­va­tory.

The SDF launched an of­fen­sive to ex­pel IS from

the oil-rich east­ern province of Deir Ez­zor in Septem­ber. The Kur­dish­led al­liance has since whit­tled down ji­hadis­theld ter­ri­tory to a scrap of just four square kilo­me­tres be­tween the Euphrates and the Iraqi bor­der.

Up to 600 ji­hadists could still re­main in­side, most of them for­eign­ers, ac­cord­ing to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

But he added the ex­trem­ist group’s elu­sive leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi was likely not in the pocket.

“We do not think he is in Syria,” Bali said, with­out adding any de­tails about the where­abouts of the man who de­clared a cross­bor­der IS “caliphate” in

2014. On the Iraqi side of the bor­der, French mem­bers of the coali­tion on Satur­day stood ready to pour fury on any IS diehards seek­ing to es­cape.

Dozens of 155-mm shells were lined up ready to be loaded onto three greenand-black Cae­sar gun­how­itzers with a range of

40 km. Coali­tion deputy

com­man­der Christo­pher Ghika on Fri­day said Iraqi forces had sealed the bor­der into their coun­try.

At the height of their rule, the ji­hadists im­posed their bru­tal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic law on a ter­ri­tory roughly the size of Bri­tain. But sep­a­rate mil­i­tary of­fen­sives in both coun­tries, in­clud­ing by the SDF, have since re­taken the vast bulk of that “caliphate”.

On Satur­day, Bali said he ex­pected the bat­tle for the last patch of IS ter­ri­tory to be over in days.

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