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'Heavy Clashes' as SDF Battles ISIS in Syria

'Heavy Clashes' as SDF Battles ISIS in Syria

Sunday, 10 February, 2019 - 09:30
An armored vehicle belonging to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the front line village of Baghouz in eastern Syria on February 2, 2019 | AFP
London- Asharq Al-Awsat
US-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting as they pressed the battle against the last shred of ISIS group's "caliphate" in eastern Syria on Sunday, a war monitor said.

The SDF, backed by US air power, has driven Isis from large swaths of territory it once controlled in northern and eastern Syria, confining the extremists to a small pocket of land near the border with Iraq.

Scores of ISIS fighters are now besieged in two villages, or less than 1% of the self-styled caliphate that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and Iraq.

In recent weeks, thousands of civilians, including families of Isis fighters, left the area controlled by the extremists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes between both sides on Sunday morning, as coalition planes and artillery bombarded ISIS positions.

"The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based war monitor.

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

The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down militant-held territory to a patch of just four square kilometers (one square mile) on the eastern banks of the Euphrates.

Up to 600 militants could still remain inside, most of them foreigners, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

“The decisive battle began tonight to finish what remains of Daesh terrorists,” Bali said, using an Arabic name for ISIS.

“The battle is very fierce,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying. “Those remaining inside are the most experienced who are defending their last stronghold. According to this you can imagine the ferocity and size of the fighting.”

Bali did not say how long they expecte the battle to last.

Since fighting intensified in December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of radical fighters, have fled out into SDF-held desert areas, the Observatory says.

That figure includes some 3,200 suspected militants detained by the SDF, according to the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

At the height of their rule, the militants imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law on a territory spanning parts of Syria and Iraq that was roughly the size of Britain.

But separate military offensives in both countries, including by the SDF, have since retaken the vast bulk of the cross-border "caliphate" they declared in 2014.

US officials have said in recent weeks that ISIS has lost 99.5% of its territory and is holding on to fewer than 5 square kilometers in Syria, or less than 2 square miles, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. But activists and residents say ISIS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The US military has warned the group could stage a comeback if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased.

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