Airstrikes kill 16 civilians as US-backed Syrian forces battle to take last Daesh pocket

In this Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 image from video provided by Hawar News Agency, ANHA, an online Kurdish news service, civilians flee fighting near Baghouz, Syria. (AP)
Updated 11 February 2019
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Airstrikes kill 16 civilians as US-backed Syrian forces battle to take last Daesh pocket

  • Seven children among the dead, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said
  • The SDF announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border

NEAR BAGHOUZ: US-led coalition air strikes on the last Daesh pocket in Syria on Monday killed 16 civilians, including at least seven children, a war monitor said.
Eight women and one elderly man were also among the civilians killed while trying to flee towards the Iraqi border, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The coalition was not immediately available for comment, but has repeatedly said it does its utmost to avoid targeting civilians.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition continued to battle a fierce extremist fightback Monday.
Mushrooming black clouds rose over the embattled extremist holdout in eastern Syria, as missiles and a warplane streaked through the sky.
More than four years after the extremists declared a “caliphate” across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, several offensives have whittled that proto-state down to a tiny holdout.
The SDF on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border.
The US-led coalition maintained a steady beat of bombings on the last Daesh pocket on Monday after an early morning Daesh counterattack caused several SDF casualties.
“IS launched a counterattack on our forces and we are now responding with rockets, air strikes and direct clashes,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told AFP.
The sound of bombs echoed dozens of kilometers 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.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters had pressed on Monday morning in the face of tough obstacles.
“The SDF are advancing slowly in what remains of the IS pocket” on the edges of the village of Baghouz, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
But land mines, Daesh snipers, and tunnels the extremists have dug out for their defense are hindering the advance, he said.
Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to oust the extremists from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.
Since December, tens of thousands of people, most women and children related to Daesh fighters, have fled to SDF territory.
US-backed forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential extremists for questioning.
On Monday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from Daesh areas.
Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.
Some 600 people were able to reach SDF territory on Sunday after fleeing the fighting, the Observatory said.
Among them, were 20 suspected IS members, including two French women, seven Turks, and three Ukrainians, said the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria.
The SDF — which has said it expects the final offensive to be over in days — announced Sunday that it had taken some 40 positions from the extremists following direct combat involving light weapons.
The alliance had earlier said that up to 600 jihadists as well as hundreds of civilians could remain inside a patch four square kilometers (one mile square).
Spokesman Bali said Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the man who pronounced the cross-border “caliphate” in 2014, was not among them, and likely not in Syria.


Erdogan: Turkey’s S-400 missile systems purchase from Russia ‘done deal’

Updated 22 min 21 sec ago
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Erdogan: Turkey’s S-400 missile systems purchase from Russia ‘done deal’

ANKARA: Turkey will not turn back from its deal to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia, President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Saturday, a day after an informal deadline Washington set for Ankara to respond to a rival offer passed.
NATO member Turkey has repeatedly said it is committed to buying the Russian missile defense system, despite warnings from the US-led alliance that the S-400s cannot be integrated into the NATO air defense system.
US officials had set an informal deadline of February 15 for Ankara to respond to the rival US offer and have said that if Turkey proceeds with the S-400 purchase, Washington will withdraw its offer to sell a $3.5 billion Raytheon Co. Patriot missile package.
They have also said it would jeopardize Turkey’s purchase of Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighter jets and possibly result in the United States imposing sanctions.
However, speaking to reporters on the flight back from the Russian resort of Sochi, where a three-way summit on Syria between Turkey, Russia and Iran was held, Erdogan said Ankara would press on with the S-400 purchases.
“We made the S-400 deal with Russia, so it out of the question for us to turn back. That’s done,” Erdogan said, according to broadcaster NTV.
He said Turkey was open to purchasing Patriot systems from the United States as long as the deal served Turkey’s interests, but added there were issues on delivery and production that were still being discussed with Washington.
“The US administration views the early delivery issue positively, but they won’t say anything about joint production or a credit. We continue our work based on the promise of the S-400 deliveries in July.”
The formal US offer for Turkey’s purchase of Patriot systems expires at the end of March, US officials have told Reuters, after which a new offer would have to be submitted.
The US asked Turkey to give at least an informal answer on whether it would go ahead with its S-400 purchase by February 15, one US official said.
It was not immediately clear whether Turkey had responded to the US offer.