Heavy fight­ing hits last IS pocket in east­ern Syria

Gulf Times - - REGION/ARAB WORLD -

Heavy bat­tles were rag­ing yes­ter­day be­tween US-backed Kur­dish Syr­ian fight­ers and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in the ter­ror­ist group’s last pocket in east­ern Syria.

In re­cent months, the oil­rich prov­ince of Deir al-Zor in east­ern Syria has seen clashes be­tween the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), a Kur­dish-led group al­lied with the US, and the ex­trem­ists.

“Our fight­ers man­aged to take the neigh­bour­hood of Hawma, one of the first dis­tricts of Ha­jeen,” SDF spokesman Ahmed Mo­hamed said.

Ha­jeen is the largest town in the Is­lamic State’s last pocket in east­ern Syria.

Is­lamic State has grad­u­ally been driven back in the mul­ti­fac­eted civil war, which be­gan in 2011 with var­i­ous op­po­si­tion groups tak­ing on gov­ern­ment forces loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad.

“Bad weather in­clud­ing heavy fog is not help­ing our fight­ers move faster,” Mo­hamed said.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a Bri­tain­based war mon­i­tor, re­ported that the fight­ing has re­sulted in the deaths of 42 Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and 36 SDF fight­ers since Mon­day.

The SDF forces are in con­trol of more than 70% of Ha­jeen, the ob­ser­va­tory said, a re­port that the Kur­dish mili­tia did not con­firm.

At least 600 civil­ians have fled Ha­jeen for SDF ar­eas on the east of the Euphrates River in Deir al-Zorr since Novem­ber 30, the mon­i­tor said.

The num­ber of civil­ians who are still trapped in­side the em­bat­tled town re­mains un­known.

The ob­ser­va­tory said Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists were ex­e­cut­ing

civil­ians caught while at­tempt­ing to flee Ha­jeen, ac­cus­ing them of head­ing to “ar­eas of in­fi­delity.”

The ar­eas un­der Is­lamic State con­trol in the east­ern coun­try­side of Deir al-Zor have ex­pe­ri­enced the heav­i­est airstrikes from a US-led coali­tion since the SDF forces started an op­er­a­tion to ex­pel the rad­i­cal group from the area in Septem­ber, the watch­dog said.

The UN World Food Pro­gramme (WFP) said yes­ter­day that air strikes and ground bat­tles had dis­placed 16,500 peo­ple from Ha­jeen, most of whom have sought shel­ter in vil­lages on the north-east­ern side of the Euphrates.

“WFP has pro­vided readyto-eat ra­tions for all those dis­placed, in ad­di­tion to the 33,500 most vul­ner­a­ble in­di­vid­u­als in the host com­mu­ni­ties re­ceiv­ing the dis­placed fam­i­lies, to­talling 50,000,” the agency said in a state­ment re­leased in Geneva.

The SDF has played a ma­jor

role in fight­ing Is­lamic State in war-torn Syria.

In Syria’s north-west­ern prov­ince of Idlib, the last key op­po­si­tion strong­hold in the coun­try, vi­o­lence over the last week has dis­placed 15,000 peo­ple to­wards gov­ern­men­theld ar­eas in the ad­ja­cent prov­ince of Hama, ac­cord­ing to WFP.

In re­cent weeks, south­ern and east­ern Idlib have wit­nessed an es­ca­la­tion in vi­o­lence in the form of ar­tillery at­tacks against armed groups from the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces and in­fight­ing among ri­val armed groups.

In Septem­ber, Rus­sia and Tur­key reached a deal to es­tab­lish a de­mil­i­tarised buf­fer zone in Idlib, a move that pre­vented a ma­jor gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive there.

Mil­i­tants have re­mained in the area de­spite an Oc­to­ber 15 dead­line to with­draw. An in­ter­mit­tent ex­change of shelling by gov­ern­ment forces and rebels there has since been re­ported.

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