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AFP
February 11, 2019

US-backed Syrian fighters advance amid heavy clashes with IS

World

AFP
February 11, 2019

HASAKEH, Syria: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized ground from Islamic State in a fierce battle to capture its last enclave in eastern Syria, an SDF official said on Sunday. In fierce fighting, they pressed the battle against the last shred of the Islamic State group’s "self-rule" in eastern Syria.

The jihadists overran large parts of the country and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but various military offensives have since reduced that territory to a patch on the Iraqi border. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by a US-led coalition, announced a final push to retake the jihadist pocket late Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow civilians to flee. An SDF field commander said fighting was ongoing on Sunday morning.

"There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing," he told AFP. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said coalition planes and artillery bombarded jihadist positions. "The battle is ongoing.

There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory. The SDF launched an offensive to expel IS from the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September.

The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down jihadist-held territory to a scrap 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.

The SDF holds hundreds of foreigners accused of belonging to the extremist group in its custody, as well as members of their families. They have urged Western governments to repatriate their nationals, but politicians abroad have been reluctant.

Relatives at home fear alleged foreign jihadists may end up facing tough justice in Iraq, where Human Rights Watch warned they could face "torture and unfair trials".On Sunday, a Russian diplomatic source says Russia was repatriating 27 children who mothers are being held in Iraq for belonging to IS.

The issue of jihadist repatriation from Syria has come into sharper focus since the United States in December announced its military withdrawal from Syria. That announcement has seen the Kurds warn they may struggle to keep jihadists in jail, and pushed them to seek a new ally in the Damascus regime to prevent a long threatened Turkish offensive.

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