US-backed forces in fi­nal fight against IS ‘caliphate’

SYRIA ENDGAME 40,000 peo­ple, mostly wives and kids of ji­hadists, evac­u­ated

Hindustan Times (Amritsar) - - World - Agen­cies let­[email protected]­dus­tan­times.com ■

BEIRUT: The US-backed Syr­ian forces cap­tured 41 po­si­tions held by Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants and de­stroyed their for­ti­fi­ca­tions in the last tiny pocket they hold in east­ern Syria amid fierce fight­ing, a spokesman said on Sun­day.

Mustafa Bali said the Kur­dish­led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces made the ad­vances overnight and on Sun­day, hours af­ter they launched a fi­nal push to clear the area from IS mil­i­tants.

The fi­nal bat­tle to clear the vil­lage of Baghouz is now play­ing out af­ter nearly 40,000 civil­ians were evac­u­ated from the area in the east­ern prov­ince of Deir-el­Zour over the past few weeks.

Bali said heavy fight­ing was go­ing on in­side Baghouz on Sun­day, adding that an IS coun­ter­at­tack was foiled early in the day. He did not say how long the bat­tle was ex­pected to last. The US-led coali­tion war­planes are giv­ing cover to ad­vanc­ing SDF fight­ers.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pre­dicted on Wed­nes­day that the Is­lamic State group will lose by next week all the ter­ri­tory it once con­trolled in Iraq and Syria.

That would mark the end of a four-year global war to end the ex­trem­ist group’s territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq where the group es­tab­lished its self-pro­claimed “caliphate” in 2014. The US of­fi­cials have said in re­cent weeks that IS has lost 99.5% of its ter­ri­tory and is hold­ing onto fewer than 5 square kilo­me­tres in Syria, where the bulk of the fight­ers are con­cen­trated. But ac­tivists and res­i­dents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is lay­ing the ground­work for an in­sur­gency. The US mil­i­tary has warned the group could stage a come­back if the mil­i­tary and counter-ter­ror­ism pres­sure on it is eased.

The en­clave, where the fierce bat­tle is rag­ing, is close to the Iraqi bor­der and com­prises two vil­lages. Is­lamic State also still re­tains ter­ri­tory in the part of Syria that is mostly un­der the con­trol of the Rus­sian- and Ira­nian-backed Syr­ian gov­ern­ment.

Bali, who heads the SDF me­dia of­fice, said, “The clashes are fe­ro­cious nat­u­rally be­cause the ter­ror­ist group is de­fend­ing its last strong­hold.”

Bali said 400 to 600 ji­hadists were es­ti­mated to be holed up in the en­clave, in­clud­ing for­eign­ers and other hard­ened fight­ers.

Be­tween 500 to 1,000 civil­ians are also es­ti­mated to be in­side, Bali said. “If we can, in a short time frame, get the (re­main­ing) civil­ians out or iso­late them, I be­lieve that the com­ing few days will wit­ness the mil­i­tary end of the ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion in this area,” Bali said.

Se­nior SDF of­fi­cial Re­dur Xelil told Reuters on Satur­day the force hoped to cap­ture the area by the end of Fe­bru­ary, but cau­tioned that IS would con­tinue to pose “great and se­ri­ous” se­cu­rity threats even af­ter that.

Spear­headed by the Kur­dish YPG mili­tia, the SDF has been the main US part­ner in Syria.

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.

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 green-and-black Caesar gun-how­itzers with a range of 40 kilo­me­tres.

AFP

■ French de­fence min­is­ter Florence Parly (2nd L) talks to French sol­diers en­gaged in the Op­er­a­tion Cham­mal, which is part of the Op­er­a­tion In­her­ent Re­solve, the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion against the Is­lamic State near Al-Qaim, a few kilo­me­tres away from the last scrap of ter­ri­tory held by IS in east Syria.

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