Syrian fighters backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition battled a fierce jihadist fightback yesterday as they pushed to retake a last morsel of territory from the Islamic State group. Mushrooming black clouds rose over the embattled jihadist 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 neighbouring Iraq, several offensives have whittled that proto-state down to a tiny holdout.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard jihadists from that patch on the Iraq border. “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 Monday. He 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 yesterday 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 landmines, IS snipers, and tunnels the extremists have dug out for their defence are hindering the advance, he said. Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to oust the jihadists from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.
Screening for jihadists
Since December, tens of thousands of people, most women and children related to IS fighters, have fled to SDF territory. US- ba cked forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential jihadists for questioning. On Monday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from IS 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. 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 jihadists following direct combat involving light weapons.