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
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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.


OIC body urges Muslim countries to promote culture of reading

Updated 40 min 30 sec ago
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OIC body urges Muslim countries to promote culture of reading

  • Critical shortage of ‘reading rates’ and ‘lack of access to books’ deplored
  • ISESCO calls on Muslim countries to support publishing industry

RABAT, Morocco: Muslim countries must do more to promote books and reading, the Saudi Press Agency reported one of the world’s largest Islamic organizations as saying.

The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), which was founded by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 40 years ago, called on Muslim countries to improve the publishing industry, provide copyright protection, and preserve manuscripts by digitizing them so that current and future generations could benefit from them.

It made the comments ahead of World Book and Copyright Day, a UN event celebrated on April 23. 

ISESCO said that knowledge and science in Muslim communities soared when printing was discovered, adding that paper books would remain a pillar of culture and a driver for development because civilization was founded on the discovery of writing.

“The media through which knowledge and sciences were transferred have varied with the advent of the information and communications technology revolution,” ISESCO said. “The world now has digital as well as paper books and, in spite of this great leap achieved by humanity to disseminate knowledge and sciences, there is a critical shortage of reading rates, and a large segment of people lack access to books and intermediate technologies. In addition, certain categories of people, such as the visually impaired, do not benefit from a large number of publications.”

The ISESCO statement mentioned statistics that showed an increase in the proportion of published books compared with previous years, which were characterized by a decline in the sector. ISESCO said the functions of paper and digital books were evenly divided.

But the popularity of books and reading could not hide the difficulties and risks facing the written word, it added. Manuscripts faced destruction and theft in some areas of armed conflict and this phenomenon threatened Islamic culture and history, said ISESCO.

The body said that technology could be used to combat book piracy through practical measures such as standardizing legislation, closing legal loopholes and raising awareness about the dangers of piracy.

ISESCO called on member states to give attention to books and reading as well as people with special needs to help them access books.

 

Environment protection

Separately, ISESCO and the General Authority of Meteorology and Environmental Protection (PME) had a meeting on Friday in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss the Saudi Arabia Award for Environmental Management in the Islamic World (KSAAEM).

The meeting, held at ISESCO headquarters, was presided over by PME President Khalil bin Musleh Al-Thaqafi and ISESCO Director General, Abdul Aziz Othman Al-Twaijri.

The meeting hailed the support of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the efforts of the PME and ISESCO in the field of environmental protection in the Islamic world, including raising awareness about the importance of protecting the environment and encouraging scientific research through KSAAEM.

The two sides highlighted their coordination, consultation and cooperation to achieve common goals. Mohammed Hussein Al-Qahtani, PME’s director general of media and public relations, commended the efforts made in this area and the results, and said there was a need to develop the award’s media plan to expand its outreach.

Dr. Abdelamajid Tribak, from ISESCO’s Directorate of Science and Technology, gave a presentation on the activities of KSAAEM’s General Secretariat.

He said the number of nominees had risen this year compared to the previous year, with 200 entrants from 40 Islamic and non-Islamic countries.