AFP/Near Baghouz, Syria
Syrian fighters backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition battled a fierce militant counteroffensive yesterday as they pushed to retake a last morsel of territory from the Islamic State group.
A war monitor said a coalition air strike killed 16 civilians including seven children trying to flee the holdout yesterday, but the US-led alliance was not immediately available for comment.
More than four years after the extremists declared a “caliphate” across large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, several offensives have whittled that down to a tiny holdout.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard militants from that patch in eastern Syria on the Iraq border.
The US-led coalition maintained a steady beat of bombings on the last IS pocket yesterday, as the SDF faced fierce resistance.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said 12 SDF fighters and 19 militants were killed in the fighting yesterday.
“Heavy clashes are ongoing to pressure IS into surrendering,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said the SDF responded after IS launched a counterattack earlier in the day.
“IS launched a counterattack on our forces and we are now responding with rockets, air strikes and direct clashes,” Bali said earlier.
The sound of bombs echoed dozens of kilometres away and columns of dark grey smoke could be seen from SDF territory.
Bali said there were “dozens of SDF hostages held by IS” inside their last foothold, but denied reports of executions.
Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to oust the militants from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.
Since December, tens of thousands of people, most women and children related to IS fighters, have fled the shrinking militant holdout into SDF territory.
US-backed forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential militants for questioning.Yesterday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from IS areas.
Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.
Two French women said they paid smugglers to take them out of the battered IS-held holdout of Baghouz, but Iraqi militants had prevented other foreigners from leaving.
“They said only the Syrians and Iraqis can be smuggled out,” said one of the women, who said her first name was Christelle, from the city of Bordeaux.
The Observatory said 600 people including around 20 suspected militants fled IS areas overnight.
The SDF said it advanced inside the pocket on Sunday, seizing 40 positions from IS.
On Saturday, the alliance said up to 600 militants as well as hundreds of civilians could remain inside the IS patch of four square kilometres. Spokesman Bali said IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the man who pronounced the cross-border “caliphate” in 2014, was not among them, and likely not in Syria.
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