SDF breaks into Daesh holdout in eastern Syria
Commander accuses extremists of using human shields in battle for Hajin
BEIRUT: U.S.-backed Syrian fighters have broken into an eastern holdout of Daesh (ISIS) on the Iraqi border, a commander and activists said Thursday, months into an antiextremist offensive.
A Kurdish-led alliance, backed by airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, has been battling to oust Daesh from the pocket in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor since September.
But the Syrian Democratic Forces suffered a series of setbacks, including a vicious fightback by militants and bad weather, impeding visibility.
An SDF commander said Thursday that the alliance had managed to break into the pocket and wrest part of its main town from Daesh.
“Heavy clashes are ongoing inside the town of Hajin, after our forces advanced inside and started to control some of its neighborhoods,” Redur Khalil told AFP.
The SDF opened up humanitarian corridors out of the beleaguered pocket, allowing more than 1,000 civilians – mostly woman and children – to flee from Hajin in the past few days.
Khalil accused Daesh of using civilians as human shields, and said the corridors would remain open.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF launched an attack Tuesday and more than dozens of families had managed to flee.
The attack was backed by the heaviest shelling and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition since the start of the offensive on the Hajin pocket on Sept. 10, observatory chief Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
Since Tuesday, 34 militants including three suicide bombers and 17 SDF fighters have been reportedly killed in the fighting, the observatory said.
In almost three months of battle, more than 820 militants and more than 480 U.S.-backed fighters have been killed, the activist group says.
More than 300 civilians have been killed in that period, it says, though the coalition has repeatedly declared that it did not target any noncombatants.
Daesh overran large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” across territories it controlled.
But various offensives in both countries have routed the extremists from most of that land, crushing their dreams of statehood.
In Syria, the militants retain a presence in the vast Badia desert that stretches to the Iraqi border, as well as the pocket under attack around Hajin.
“The liberation of Hajin will not signify the end of Daesh,” Khalil said, warning it would retain sleeper cells. “Operations to expel them will still last a long time.” –