US-backed forces admit to ‘difficulties’ beating Daesh in Syria

Syrian Democratic Forces have made gains in the battle against the last pocket of Daesh. (AFP)
Updated 17 March 2019

US-backed forces admit to ‘difficulties’ beating Daesh in Syria

  • An SDF statement said the latest fighting broke out after the Kurd-led force attacked Daesh positions inside Baghouz

BAGHOUZ: US-backed forces fighting to recapture the last Daesh group outpost in Syria admitted on Sunday they were facing “difficulties” defeating the extremists, saying they were being slowed by mines, tunnels and concerns over harming women and children among the militants.
The battle to capture the extremist group’s last patch of territory in eastern Syria — a collection of tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels in the village of Baghouz — has dragged on for weeks amid an unexpected exodus of civilians from the area.
The sheer number of people who have emerged from Baghouz, nearly 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials, has taken the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise. Most have been women and children whose existence in a labyrinth of underground caves and tunnels was unknown to the fighters.
In the last two weeks, many fighters appeared to be among those evacuating. But an unknown number of militants and civilians remain inside, refusing to surrender.
“We are facing several difficulties regarding the operations,” SDF commander Kino Gabriel told reporters outside Baghouz on Sunday.
He cited the large number of mines and explosive devices planted by IS and the existence of tunnels and hideouts beneath the ground that are being used by the militants to attack SDF forces or defend themselves.
The camp is all that remains of a self-declared Islamic “caliphate” that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq. But a declaration of victory and the group’s territorial defeat has been delayed as the military campaign sputtered on in fits and starts.
A final push by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces started on Jan. 9 but has been paused on several occasions, mainly to allow for civilians to evacuate and fighters to surrender.
Underscoring the struggles faced by the SDF as they try to flush the out extremists, three Daesh fighters emerged from Baghouz on Friday acting as though they wanted to surrender only to blew themselves up, killing six people.
The campaign has also been hindered by bad weather. Intermittent storms have at times turned the battlefield to mud and Daesh militants have mounted counteroffensives on windy days, burning tires and oil to try to force the SDF back with smoke.
On Sunday, dozens of men and women were seen walking around the besieged Daesh encampment in Baghouz, as SDF fighters watched from a hilltop close by.
The camp, looking much like a junkyard, was littered with damaged vans and pickup trucks parked between tents where people appeared to be moving about.
On the hilltop lookout north of Baghouz, an SDF sentry, lying flat on his stomach with his rocket launcher trained on the camp, cautioned an approaching comrade not to get too close. “There are snipers,” he said of the IS camp.
Gabriel said the camp was approximately 0.25 square kilometers in size — much the same area it was five weeks ago, when the SDF said it was finally going to conclude the battle.
In the middle of the camp stands a pair of two-story compounds, showing little sign of damage. Several houses that appeared habitable can be seen as well.
With operations now stretching into the spring, Gabriel faced pointed questions from the press over whether Daesh would be able to resupply itself with water and goods, despite the siege.
He said he was not aware of any smuggling tunnels still in operation, and that Daesh was cut off from the outside world.
“I don’t think we will be seeing more IS terrorists appearing in this pocket," he said using an acronym for Daesh.
A commander participating in operations on the western side of the enclave said he did not believe Daesh was fleeing to the other side of the Euphrates River either, where Syrian government forces and their allies are holding positions.
Gabriel said 29,600 people have left Baghouz since Jan. 9, among them 5,000 fighters — far greater than the SDF had initially estimated remained inside.
He said the SDF no longer estimates how many people remained in Baghouz but added that recent evacuees told the fighting forces that another 5,000 were still inside.
The force and the Kurdish-led authorities that administer northeast Syria have banned in recent days journalists from interviewing evacuees from Baghouz.
The evacuees are now living in detention-like camps in the self-administered region that international humanitarian organizations say are vastly overcrowded and underserved. They say disease is rampant in the camps and medical care is desperately needed.
“The Daesh terrorists are starting to feel hunger and thirst and we are seeing this in the people who are coming out of the camp,” said Gabriel. 


Algeria buries remains of anti-French fighters, seeks Paris apology

Updated 05 July 2020

Algeria buries remains of anti-French fighters, seeks Paris apology

  • The skulls of the fighters were laid to rest during an emotional ceremony at El Alia cemetery
  • The coffins draped with the national flag were lowered into freshly dug graves in the martyr’s square of Algeria’s largest burial ground

ALGIERS: Algeria on Sunday buried the remains of 24 resistance fighters returned from Paris after more than a century and a half as it marked the 58th anniversary of its independence from France.
The skulls of the fighters, shot and decapitated in the early years of the French occupation, were laid to rest during an emotional ceremony at El Alia cemetery.
The coffins draped with the national flag were lowered into freshly dug graves in the martyr’s square of Algeria’s largest burial ground, alongside national heroes such as top revolt leader Emir Abdelkader.
An elite unit of the Republican Guard presented arms while a funeral march played in the background, an AFP correspondent reported.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who took part in the ceremony alongside other officials, on Saturday said it was time to turn a page on years of frosty relations with France, calling on Paris to apologize for its colonial past.
“We have already had half-apologies. The next step is needed... we await it,” he told news channel France 24 in an interview.
An apology was necessary to “face the problem of memory that jeopardizes many things in the relations between the two countries,” Tebboune said.
It would “make it possible to cool tensions and create a calmer atmosphere for economic and cultural relations,” especially for the more than six million Algerians who live in France, he added.
The skulls, once viewed as war trophies by French colonial officers, were flown into Algiers international airport on Friday and then moved to the Palace of Culture where they were placed on display.
Despite stifling heat, a long queue formed outside the palace and some men and women, waiting to pay their respects, wept, according to footage broadcast by several television stations.
“I came as a fighter, as an invalid from the war of libration, as a citizen who loves his country,” said Ali Zemlat.
The 85-year-old fought in the brutal 1954-1962 war that ended France’s 132 years of colonial rule in Algeria.
The skulls had been stored since the 19th century in the vaults of the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, which specializes in anthropology.
Among the remains were those of revolt leader Sheikh Bouzian, who was captured in 1849 by the French, shot and decapitated, and those of his comrades who had met the same fate.
Algeria had officially asked for their return in 2018, as well as requesting the handover of colonial archives.
The restitution of the skulls has been seen as a sign of a thaw in relations between Algeria and the former colonial power, marked since independence by recurrent tensions.
The French presidency, in a statement to AFP, said the return of the remains was a gesture of “friendship” and part of efforts to “reconcile the memories of the French and Algerian people.”
The repatriation comes amid a global reexamination of the legacy of colonialism, sparked by the May killing of unarmed African American George Floyd by a white police officer.
His murder sparked protests across the world, and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to make amends for “centuries of violence and discrimination.”
Emmanuel Macron, the first French president to be born after the 1954-62 independence war in which 1.5 million Algerians died, made his first official visit to Algiers in December 2017.
At the time, he told news website Tout sur l’Algerie that he was “ready” to see his country hand back the skulls.
During his presidential election campaign, Macron had created a storm by calling France’s colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity.”