U.S.-backed fighters say ISIS de­feat in Syria near

4-year cam­paign against ‘caliphate’ could end in days

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Sarah El Deeb

BAGHOUZ, Syria — The sounds of mor­tar shelling and fighter jets whizzing by filled the air.

At the base in this small vil­lage, fighters from the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces co­or­di­nate with their com­rades about two kilometers away who are clos­ing in on Is­lamic State mil­i­tants hid­ing in their last toe­hold on the bor­der between Syria and Iraq.

De­spite the pro­jec­tiles be­ing fired, the mood among the fighters at this base is easy­go­ing. The Kur­dish-led force, with help from the U.S.-led coali­tion, has all but de­feated the most fe­ro­cious ex­trem­ist group to ter­ror­ize the re­gion in years.

“The sit­u­a­tion is great. It can’t be bet­ter,” said one com­man­der at the front line into his walkie-talkie.

Clashes con­tinue in­side the vil­lage of Baghouz, mostly at night. Fighters say mil­i­tants are hid­ing among civil­ians in a dis­placed peo­ple’s camp to avoid airstrikes. Ar­tillery rounds were meant to clear land mines for the SDF fighters to ad­vance.

But SDF com­man­ders in­sist the of­fi­cial end of the group’s hold on ter­ri­tory in Syria is near.

“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” said Ciya Fu­rat, a com­man­der with the Kur­dish-led SDF, speak­ing at a news con­fer­ence, miles away at the al-Omar Oil Field Base in the Deir elZour prov­ince.

The cap­ture of the last pocket still held by ISIS fighters in Baghouz would mark the end of a dev­as­tat­ing four-year global cam­paign to end the ex­trem­ist group’s hold on ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq — their so­called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 con­trolled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.

An As­so­ci­ated Press team in Baghouz on Satur­day heard sev­eral air­craft over­head. At least two airstrikes and mor­tar dis­charges were seen in the dis­tance, close to the tiny area where the mil­i­tants are said to be holed up. SDF fighters said they were fired by the U.S.-led coali­tion.

The SDF de­clared the fi­nal push to cap­ture the vil­lage a week ago af­ter more than 20,000 civil­ians, many of them the wives and fam­i­lies of for­eign fighters, were evac­u­ated.

Since then, SDF com­man­ders say they have been sur­prised to discover that there were hun­dreds of civil­ians still in the en­clave, af­ter they were brought up by the mil­i­tants from un­der­ground tun­nels. Their pres­ence has slowed down the SDF ad­vance.

Hostages, in­clud­ing fighters from the Kur­dish-led forces and civil­ians, were an­other rea­son the ad­vances were slowed down.

Fu­rat, the SDF com­man­der, said that his fighters were able to lib­er­ate 10 of their col­leagues held by the group also known by the ini­tials ISIS. He said ISIS fighters are now be­sieged in an area about 840 square yards.

Fu­rat’s com­ments were car­ried by Kur­dish news agen­cies.

“We are deal­ing with this small pocket with patience and cau­tion. It is mil­i­tar­ily fallen but civil­ians are used as hu­man shields,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali, adding that the SDF be­lieves that ISIS gun­men are also hold­ing pre­vi­ously kid­napped Syr­i­ans in the area.

SDF fighters said that as

Hezbol­lah: Trump a ‘hyp­ocrite’

BEIRUT they cleared ar­eas cap­tured from ISIS they found some cap­tives held in bath­rooms four days ear­lier, in­clud­ing two sol­diers from the Syr­ian govern­ment. They added that they have also re­moved and buried bod­ies of for­eign fighters.

Hamza said ISIS snipers still tar­get their forces from among the civil­ians and de­scribed the abun­dance of land mines as a ma­jor chal­lenge.

He also had a mes­sage for the U.S. pres­i­dent.

“We tell Trump: It wasn’t you that lib­er­ated it. It was us here on the ground,” he added.

Rami Ab­dur­rah­man, who heads the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a war mon­i­tor, said SDF fighters are al­most in full con­trol of the area once con­trolled by ex­trem­ists, adding that there might still be fighters hid­ing in a net­work of un­der­ground tun­nels.

The Ob­ser­va­tory said about 200 ISIS gun­men sur­ren­dered Fri­day, days af­ter about 240 oth­ers sur­ren­dered and were taken by SDF fighters and U.S.-led coali­tion mem­bers.

Fu­rat said af­ter the de­feat of ISIS, the SDF “will con­tinue in its fight against (ISIS) sleeper cells.”

FELIPE DANA/AP

U.S.-backed fighters of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces sit out­side a build­ing Satur­day in Baghouz, Syria. The SDF says the end to the ex­trem­ist group ISIS will hap­pen soon.

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