US-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting as they pressed the battle against the last shred of the Islamic State group’s ‘caliphate’ in eastern Syria on Sunday, a war monitor said, reports BSS/AFP.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by a US-led coalition,announced a final push to retake the jihadist pocket near the Iraqi border late Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow civilians to flee.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes between both sides on Sunday morning, as coalition planes and artillery bombarded jihadist positions.
‘The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, withlandmines going off,’ said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based war monitor.The SDF launched an offensive to expel IS from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September.
The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down jihadist-held territory to a patch of just four square kilometres (one square mile) on the eastern banks of the Euphrates. Up to 600 jihadists could still remain inside, most of them foreigners, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.
Since fighting intensified in December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of jihadist fighters, have fled out into SDF-held desert areas, the Observatory says.
That figure includes some 3,200 suspected jihadists detained by the SDF, according to the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.“There may be foreign hostages among our own prisoners held by [IS],” he said.
“We have received a lot of information, sourced to [IS], about John Cantlie’s presence as a prisoner, which is very hard to verify, but also suggestions that Father Paolo and the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] employee may also be alive.” Cantlie was abducted in Syria in November 2012 and was used by IS in numerous propaganda videos. He had not been heard of since December 2016, until two weeks ago when Bali tweeted that Cantlie could be alive. On Tuesday, British security minister Ben Wallace also suggested that the journalist might be alive. Dall’Oglio, a peace activist and supporter of the opposition, disappeared in Syria in July 2013.
Earlier this week a Kurdish official indicated the hostages could become part of negotiations for IS fighters to receive safe passage from their last stronghold.
“These are ideal figures for [IS] to use in their negotiation for a safe corridor to escape,” the official said.
“But if these three were held alive then we would have expected to have received more concrete information about them. We haven’t. The information could just be a ploy by [IS] to protect themselves and live a little longer.” At the height of their rule, the jihadists imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law on a territory spanning parts of Syria and Iraq that was roughly the size of Britain.
But separate military offensives in both countries, including by the SDF, have since retaken the vast bulk of the cross-border ‘caliphate’ they declared in 2014.