US-backed SDF expects fierce battle in final IS enclave

US-backed SDF expects fierce battle in final IS enclave

FILE PHOTO: A girl looks on, near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province
FILE PHOTO: A girl looks on, near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

BAGHOUZ, Syria: US-backed Syrian fighters said on Friday (Mar 1) they expect a fierce battle with Islamic State militants still holed up in their last enclave in eastern Syria, after US President Donald Trump said the jihadists had been driven from all the territory they held.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been poised for several weeks to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State's territorial rule at the besieged village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border, but the operation has been held up by efforts to evacuate thousands of civilians.

The United Nations said at least 84 people, two thirds of them children, had died since December on their way to a camp in northeastern Syria where thousands of people have been taken after leaving the shrinking Islamic State area.

READ: At least 84 die fleeing Islamic State in Deir al-Zor in east Syria - UN

Hundreds flee last pocket of IS group in Syria
Map showing movements of civilians fleeing the last pocket of IS group in Syria, as of Feb 27 AFP/Simon MALFATTO

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are evacuating hundreds of people from the ruins of the
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are evacuating hundreds of people from the ruins of the Islamic State groups's "caliphate" but up to several thousand more remain and commanders want to hold off a final offensive until they too are brought out AFP/Delil SOULEIMAN

The Islamic State enclave at Baghouz, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, the group continues to be seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters that Islamic State militants were still holed up inside the area and had not surrendered, and that there were still civilians in the enclave. The SDF plans to evacuate another large group of civilians on Friday, he said.

"We won't storm the village and declare it liberated unless we have completely confirmed the departure of civilians," he said. "We expect a fierce battle".

Many of the jihadists left in Baghouz are foreign fighters, the SDF has said previously.

FILE PHOTO: A girl takes a stack of bread from a fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the
FILE PHOTO: A girl takes a stack of bread from a fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY/File Photo

'SLOW AND DELIBERATE'

Speaking to American troops in Alaska on Thursday, Trump said: "We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90 per cent, 92 per cent, the caliphate in Syria. Now it's 100 per cent we just took over, 100 per cent caliphate."

Some 40,000 people have crossed out of the jihadists' diminishing territory in the last three months as the US-backed SDF sought to drive the militants from remaining pockets.

The number of evacuees pouring out of Baghouz has surpassed initial estimates of how many were inside.

An SDF commander told Reuters on Thursday that many of the people leaving Baghouz had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

A spokesman for the US-led international coalition which supports the SDF said the Kurdish-led Syrian group had adopted a "slow and deliberate" approach to Baghouz.

"They are dealing with multiple dilemmas and trying to stabilise the area," Colonel Sean Ryan said.

The coalition said late on Thursday it had killed veteran French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced a recording claiming responsibility for the November 2015 attacks on Paris, in a strike in Baghouz. It did not say when he had been killed.

The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria mainly to support the SDF in fighting against Islamic State.

Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them because Islamic State had already been defeated, a decision that shocked allies and top aides and prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to quit. Earlier this month, the White House partially reversed itself and said around 400 US troops would stay.

Source: Reuters/jt

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