Hundreds flee US-backed Syria battle for last Daesh holdout

Syrian fighters backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition battled a fierce militant counteroffensive as they pushed to retake a last morsel of territory from the Daesh group in an assault lasting days. (File/AFP)
Updated 12 February 2019
0

Hundreds flee US-backed Syria battle for last Daesh holdout

  • The extremist group declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2014, but various military campaigns have chipped it down to a fragment
  • Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests

OMAR OIL FIELD, Syria: US-backed forces pressed the battle to expel diehard militants from the last pocket of land under their control in eastern Syria on Tuesday after hundreds fled the holdout overnight.
The extremist group declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2014, but various military campaigns have chipped it down to a fragment on the Iraqi border.
After a pause of more than a week to allow out civilians, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared a last push to retake the “Baghouz pocket” from the extremists on Saturday.
Aided by the warplanes and artillery of a US-led coalition, the Kurdish-led alliance has made way into a patch of four square kilometers (one square mile).
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said heavy clashes were ongoing on Tuesday, after hundreds fled the battle zone overnight.
“A group of 600 civilians escaped from Baghouz at one in the morning and they are being searched now,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the new arrivals included women and children from France and Germany.
“Most of those who got out are foreigners,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Coalition spokesperson Sean Ryan said US-backed forces were facing a fierce fightback.
“The progress is slow and methodical as the enemy is fully entrenched and IS fighters continue to conduct counter attacks,” he said.
“The coalition continues to strike at IS targets whenever available.”
The SDF launched the battle to expel Daesh from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September, slowly tightening the noose around the militants and their families since December.
In the past two months, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of militant fighters, have fled into SDF-held areas, the Observatory says.
That figure includes some 3,400 suspected jihadists detained by the SDF, according to the Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
On Monday, AFP saw dozens of new arrivals at an SDF-held screening location.
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.
Two French women told AFP they paid smugglers to take them out of the battered Daesh-held holdout, 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 gave her first name as Christelle, from the city of Bordeaux.
Bali, the SDF spokesman, said on Saturday that up to 600 militants could remain inside the pocket.
But the group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who proclaimed the “caliphate” in 2014 was likely not there, he said.
At the height of their proto-state, Baghdadi’s followers implemented their brutal implementation of Islamic law in an area the size of the United Kingdom.
But various offensives, including by the US-backed SDF and Russia-backed regime forces, have taken back all but a morsel of that territory near the village of Baghouz.
Once the “caliphate” is declared over, the fight will continue to eliminate Daesh sleeper cells, the SDF and their allies have said.
“After Baghouz, clearing operations will have to take place as well,” Ryan said.
“IS has purposely left IEDs (improvised explosive devices) behind to intentionally kill innocent civilians.”
The militant group retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held areas.
US President Donald Trump on Monday said that the coalition may declare victory over Daesh in the region in the coming days.
“Our brave warriors have liberated virtually 100 percent of Daesh (territory) in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
“Soon it will be announced, soon, maybe over the next week, maybe less,” he told a rally in the US city of El Paso.
Trump shocked Washington’s allies in December by announcing a pullout of all 2,000 US troops from war-torn Syria.
The decision has left Syria’s Kurds scrambling for protection from Damascus against a long threatened attack by neighboring Turkey.
After decades of marginalization, the Kurds have largely stayed out of the eight-year civil war, instead setting up their own semi-autonomous institutions in northeast Syria.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.


Three Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers at Gaza border: ministry

Updated 18 August 2019
0

Three Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers at Gaza border: ministry

  • Attack helicopter and tank had fired at ‘armed suspects’ along the barrier that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in the northern Gaza Strip, the Palestinian health ministry said Sunday, hours after three rockets were fired at Israel from the blockaded enclave.

The ministry said another Palestinian was hospitalized in the shooting that came after the Israeli army said an attack helicopter and tank had fired at “armed suspects” along the barrier that separates Israel from Gaza.

“We just identified a number of armed suspects from Gaza approaching the security fence with Israel. We fired toward them,” the army said a statement posted on its Twitter account.

The latest violence came after Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip fired three rockets at southern Israel late Saturday, the Israeli army said, in the second such attack in 24 hours.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The army said two of the projectiles had been intercepted by its Iron Dome aerial defense system but it did not specify what happened to the third rocket.

Air raid sirens had sounded in the southern town of Sderot and its surroundings.

On Friday Palestinians in Gaza fired a rocket at Sderot, in what the army said was the first such attack since July 12.

In response, Israeli warplanes struck at least three targets in the Gaza Strip early on Saturday but caused no casualties, a Palestinian security source said.

The strikes hit a Hamas observation post in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, an unidentified target near Gaza City and open ground near Deir El Balah in the central part of the territory, the source said.

An Israeli army statement mentioned only two strikes, against “underground targets belonging to the Hamas terror organization in the northern and central Gaza Strip.”

Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, ruled by Islamist movement Hamas, have fought three wars since 2008.

And since March 2018, regular protests and clashes have erupted along the border of the blockaded coastal enclave.

At least 305 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza or the border area since then, the majority during demonstrations and clashes.

Seven Israelis have also been killed in Gaza-related violence over the same period.