‘Heavy clashes’ as Us-backed FORCES MAKE FI­NAL PUSH AGAINST IS

Millennium Post - - Mp World -

OMAR OIL FIELD (SYRIA): Us-backed forces were locked in fierce fight­ing Sun­day as they pressed the bat­tle against the last shred of the Is­lamic State group’s “caliphate” in east­ern Syria.

The ji­hadists over­ran large parts of the coun­try and neigh­bour­ing Iraq in 2014, but var­i­ous mil­i­tary of­fen­sives have since re­duced that ter­ri­tory to a patch on the Iraqi bor­der.

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

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Sun­day af­ter­noon said his fight­ers had bat­tled their way for­wards against the ji­hadists, cap­tur­ing 41 po­si­tions from them.

“Our forces are re­ly­ing on di­rect com­bat with light weapons,” he told AFP.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor group said the SDF had ad­vanced across farm­ing land, backed by coali­tion air strikes and ar­tillery fire.

Ear­lier, an SDF field com­man­der re­ported “heavy clashes” as his fight­ers gained ground.

The SDF launched an of­fen­sive to ex­pel IS from the oil­rich east­ern province of Deir Ez­zor in Septem­ber.

The Kur­dish-led al­liance has since whit­tled down ji­hadist-held ter­ri­tory to a scrap of just four square kilo­me­tres (one square mile) be­tween the Euphrates and the Iraqi bor­der.

Up to 600 ji­hadists could still re­main in­side, most of them for­eign­ers, Bali said.

Hun­dreds of civil­ians are also be­lieved to be in­side, he said. But Bali added the ex­trem­ist group’s elu­sive leader Abu Bakr al-bagh­dadi was likely not in the last pocket.

“We do not think he is in Syria,” Bali said, with­out adding fur­ther de­tails about the where­abouts of the man who de­clared a cross-bor­der 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 ji­hadists try­ing to es­cape.

Dozens of 155-mm shells were lined up ready to be

loaded onto three green-and­black Cae­sar gun-how­itzers with a range of 40 kilo­me­tres (25 miles).

Coali­tion deputy com­man­der Christo­pher Ghika

last week said Iraqi forces had sealed their bor­der with Syria.

Since Septem­ber, more than 1,270 IS mil­i­tants, more than 670 SDF fight­ers, and around 400 civil­ians have been killed in the fight­ing, the Ob­serva- tory says.

At the height of their rule, the ji­hadists im­posed their bru­tal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic law on a ter­ri­tory roughly the size of Bri­tain.

But 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.

The ji­hadists, how­ever, re­tain a pres­ence in Syria’s vast Ba­dia desert, and have claimed a series of deadly at­tacks in Sdf-held ar­eas.

Since De­cem­ber, more than 37,000 peo­ple, mostly wives and chil­dren of ji­hadist fight­ers, have fled out into Sdf-held ar­eas, the Ob­ser­va­tory says.

That fig­ure in­cludes some 3,400 sus­pected ji­hadists de­tained by the SDF, ac­cord­ing to the mon­i­tor, which re­lies on sources in­side Syria for its in­for­ma­tion.

The SDF holds hun­dreds of for­eign­ers ac­cused of be­long­ing to the ex­trem­ist group in its cus­tody, as well as mem­bers of their fam­i­lies.

They have urged West­ern gov­ern­ments to repa­tri­ate their na­tion­als, but politi­cians abroad have been re­luc­tant.

Rel­a­tives at home fear al­leged for­eign ji­hadists may end up fac­ing tough jus­tice in Iraq, where Hu­man Rights Watch warned they could face “tor­ture and un­fair tri­als”.

On Sun­day, a Rus­sian diplo­matic source says Rus­sia was repa­tri­at­ing 27 chil­dren who moth­ers are be­ing held in Iraq for be­long­ing to IS.

The is­sue of ji­hadist repa­tri­a­tion from Syria has come into sharper fo­cus since the United States in De­cem­ber an­nounced its mil­i­tary with­drawal from Syria.

That an­nounce­ment has seen the Kurds warn they may strug­gle to keep ji­hadists in jail, and pushed them to seek a new ally in the Da­m­as­cus regime to pre­vent a long threat­ened Turk­ish of­fen­sive.

While the Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG) have been a key US ally in the fight against IS, Ankara views them as “ter­ror­ists”.

Syria’s Kurds have largely stayed out of the coun­try’s civil war, in­stead build­ing semi-au­tonomous in­sti­tu­tions in north­ern and north­east­ern re­gions they con­trol.

The con­flict has killed more than 360,000 peo­ple and dis­placed mil­lions since start­ing in 2011 with a bru­tal crack­down on anti-govern­ment protests.

The regime has made a mil­i­tary come­back with Rus­sian mil­i­tary sup­port since 2015, and now holds al­most twothirds of Syria.

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