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SDF resumes offensive on final ISIS territory in eastern Syria

The Syrian Democratic Forces pounded the last scrap of land held by Islamic State on Monday, a scattering of tents and destroyed buildings in a remote eastern Syrian hamlet.

The jihadist group once ruled over millions in a stretch of Syria and Iraq, but they have since lost all that territory in north and eastern Syria except for a riverside bastion near the Iraqi border.

The SDF paused their months-old offensive against the shrinking holdout multiple times for thousands of dust-covered women, children and men to flee, including suspected jihadists.

But after that human flow slowed to a trickle, the SDF late Sunday, March 10 told remaining ISIS fighters time was up for any surrenders and they were moving in.

By Monday morning, the SDF had seized several positions from holdout militants, an official with the U.S.-backed forces said.

“Daesh is fighting back with heavy weapons and attempted to carry out suicide bombing a couple of times,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

The warplanes of a U.S.-led Coalition and mortar fire overnight pounded weapons caches, and tank fire targeted ISIS positions, he and a spokesperson said.

It was unclear how many people remained inside the pocket in the village of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates River, SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said late Sunday.

“We expect there to be from 1,000 to 1,500 terrorists inside Baghouz,” he said.

The SDF launched the renewed assault on Sunday after no civilians were observed to remain in the riverside encampment.

Riverside camp

“During the advance, if our forces notice the presence of civilians our special units will do the necessary to bring them away from the clashes or even work to evacuate them from the battle” zone, he said.

“The operation will continue until Baghouz is liberated and until the end of the terrorist military presence in that area,” he added.

The last ISIS fighters are hunkering down in an area that includes a dismal camp of pickup trucks and cloth-covered trenches by the reedy banks of the Euphrates.

On the frontline Saturday, AFP journalists saw figures wearing the long black clothes of women stroll inside, and bearded men zip down dirt tracks on motorbikes.

The SDF pushed into the ISIS encampment some 10 days ago, discovering spent ammunition, pots and pans lying between hastily-dug trenches and berms.

At the height of its brutal rule, ISIS controlled a stretch of land in Syria and Iraq the size of the United Kingdom.

The jihadist group had its own courts, currency and school curriculum, and meted out bloody punishment to anyone who disobeyed their rule.

The total capture of the Baghuz camp by the SDF would be a symbolic blow to ISIS, and mark the end of ISIS territorial control east of the Euphrates river and deal a death blow to the “caliphate.”

Humanitarian crisis

But beyond Baghouz, ISIS retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and sleeper cells in the northeast.

They have continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held territory in recent months, and the U.S. military has warned of the need to maintain a “vigilant offensive.”

The United States is expected to keep 200 “peacekeeping” troops in Syria after the end of the offensive, despite President Donald Trump’s shock announcement in December that all 2,000 American soldiers would leave.

The exodus out of Baghuz in recent months has sparked a humanitarian crisis, leaving aid organisations struggling to cope.

Those fleeing Baghouz have emerged exhausted and hungry after a prolonged siege, with many children suffering from malnutrition.

After fleeing the pocket, SDF members screen the crowds to weed out suspected jihadists and detain them.

Vetted civilians, including foreign women and children related to ISIS, are trucked to Kurdish-run camps for the displaced in the northeast of the country.

More than 100 people – mostly young children – have died on the way to the camp of Al-Hol or shortly after arriving, according to the International Rescue Committee aid group.

Syria’s Kurds hold hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for ISIS as well as members of their families.

But their home countries have mostly been reluctant to take them back, with the U.K. stripping several women who have joined ISIS of their nationalities.

Morocco said it had repatriated eight of its nationals from Syria on Sunday, who will be investigated for “suspected involvement in acts linked to terrorism.”

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With reporting from AFP

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