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Attack on Syrian IS enclave to begin, U.S.-backed SDF says

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A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits at a back of a truck, near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria March 9, 2019. Picture taken March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Sunday that their frontline troops had received orders to attack the final Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria, and the assault could begin at any moment.

The advance on the besieged enclave at Baghouz, near the Iraqi border, has stalled repeatedly to allow for the evacuation of civilians.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said no more civilians had come out of the enclave since Saturday, and SDF forces had not observed any more civilians in the area.

“Frontline forces have received orders to move”, he said. “This evening, we expect movement at any moment.”

Thousands of people – many of them the wives of Islamic State fighters and their children – have been streaming out of the enclave over the last few weeks.

Bali said more than 4,000 militants had surrendered to the SDF in the past month and tens of thousands of civilians had been evacuated.

“Our forces are ready now to start and finish what is left in ISIS hands,” Bali said in a separate comment on Twitter.

Reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Kevin Liffey/Tom Perry

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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IS

More civilians leave Islamic State’s Syria enclave, delaying final assault

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BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) paused military operations against Islamic State (IS) militants holed up in the group’s final enclave in eastern Syria, expecting more civilians to be evacuated from the area on Saturday, an SDF official said.

A boy looks out of a truck tarp near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Thousands of people – many of them the wives of IS fighters and their children – have been streaming out of besieged enclave at Baghouz for weeks, forcing the SDF to delay the assault to wipe out the last vestige of the jihadists’ territorial rule.

The SDF has said it wants to make sure all civilians are out of the enclave before launching its final assault. Hundreds of IS fighters have also surrendered, but the SDF believes the most hardened foreign jihadists are still inside.

“There are a number of families … military operations are paused now for their evacuation,” Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters.

Trucks used for the evacuations went into Baghouz on Saturday and four have so far emerged carrying people, a Reuters witness said.

On Friday, Bali said the SDF would resume the assault if no more civilians had emerged by Saturday afternoon.

Those emerging from Baghouz are screened by the SDF and most are sent north to the al-Hol camp, already overcrowded with uprooted Syrians and Iraqis from years of war.

More than 62,000 people displaced by fighting around the IS enclave have flooded al-Hol camp, with 5,200 arriving between March 5-7 and thousands more expected, the United Nations said on Friday.

The weather is cold and rainy and there is a shortage of tents and supplies. Dozens of children have died on the way to the camp. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) on Friday said al-Hol was at “breaking point”.

“No one could have guessed that such a large number of women and children were still living in Baghouz,” IRC spokeswoman Misty Buswell said.

Those arriving in al-Hol are in “extremely poor health” with malnutrition, diarrhoea and skin diseases. Many of the women arriving at the camp are either heavily pregnant or have recently given birth, IRC said.

After suddenly seizing swathes of land straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border in 2014 and declaring it their caliphate, Islamic State was beaten back by numerous local and foreign forces in both countries, suffering major defeats in 2017.

However, the jihadists remain a threat. In Iraq they have gone to ground, staging waves of killings and kidnappings. In Syria, their comrades hold out in remote desert areas and have carried out bombings in areas controlled by the SDF.

Islamic State on Saturday said it had carried out a suicide car bomb attack near the Syrian town of Manbij to signal to foreign troops that they are not safe in the country. Manbij is controlled by a militia allied to the SDF.

“The crusaders on Syrian soil shall know they are being watched and will not be secure while our blood beats,” a statement published by the IS-affiliated Amaq news agency said.

In an email to Reuters, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition backing the SDF, Colonel Sean Ryan, denied Islamic State’s claim that the blast had killed three U.S. armed forces members and injured others.

Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria; additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Writing by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry and Ros Russell

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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SDF

On brink of Syria defeat, Islamic State unleashes car bombs

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NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State launched suicide car bombs against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) assaulting Baghouz, in a last-ditch effort to stave off defeat in its final patch of territory, fighters from the U.S.-backed force said on Sunday.

Fire from fighting is seen in Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 3, 2019. Picture taken with a long exposure. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Capturing the village in eastern Syria will be a milestone in international efforts to roll back the jihadists, whose self-styled “caliphate” covered roughly one third of Syria and Iraq at its height in 2014.

But it is universally accepted that the group, which has been in territorial retreat since then and suffered its major defeats in 2017, will remain a security threat as an insurgent force with sleeper cells and some desolate pockets of territory.

The SDF had said it expected a “decisive battle” on Sunday after advancing gradually for 18 hours to avoid land mines sown by Islamic State (IS), whose fighters are also using underground tunnels to stage ambushes and then disappear.

By midday, however, there was no sign of the battle being over.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred IS insurgents to be inside Baghouz, mostly foreigners, and the U.S.-led international coalition supporting the SDF has described them as the “most hardened” militants.

From a position about 3 km (2 miles) from the front line on Sunday afternoon, warplanes and the pounding of artillery could be heard overhead as plumes of smoke rose over Baghouz.

An SDF commander there told Reuters that IS had sent explosive-ridden vehicles toward advancing fighters the night before. Air strikes destroyed two of them, and the SDF fired on a third to blow it up, he said.

The jihadists also shelled the approaching force.

Sinjar Shammar, from the Kurdish YPG which spearheads the SDF coalition, was wounded when shrapnel from a shell struck the armored vehicle he was driving.

“My comrade was sent to the hospital. His leg is gone,” said Shammar, 22, as his arm was being bandaged at a first-aid point.

“(But) morale is great (at the front line). I will return to the comrades in a bit… God willing, we will triumph.”

SHRIVELLED “CALIPHATE”

After declaring a modern-day caliphate across large swathes of territory it had seized in flash offensives in Syria and neighboring Iraq, IS attracted thousands of foreigners to live under its rule and defend its realm.

But its rapid expansion also attracted an array of enemies, both local and international, who began rolling back those gains. As IS territory shriveled, thousands of fighters, followers and civilians retreated to Baghouz, a small cluster of hamlets and farmland along the Euphrates River.

Over the last few weeks, they poured out in greater numbers than expected, holding up the final assault. An SDF commander told Reuters on Thursday that many of the people leaving the enclave had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

Slideshow (2 Images)

After extricating the remaining civilians, the SDF resumed its assault on Friday evening. It has not ruled out the possibility that some militants have crept out, hidden among non-combatants.

The SDF commander-in-chief said on Thursday that his force would declare victory within a week. He was later contradicted by U.S. President Donald Trump, who said the SDF had retaken 100 percent of the territory once held by IS.

Washington has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to back the SDF against IS. Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them, but the White House partially reversed itself last month, saying some 400 troops would stay.

Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Tom Perry and Mark Heinrich

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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SDF

U.S.-backed Syrian force launches ‘final battle’ against Islamic State

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QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began an assault against the final Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria on Saturday, aiming to wipe out the last vestige of the jihadist group’s “caliphate” in the SDF’s area of operations.

President Donald Trump, who is planning to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, said on Wednesday he expected an announcement as early as next week that the U.S.-led coalition operating in support of the SDF had reclaimed all the territory previously held by the jihadist group.

The enclave is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages, though Islamic State (IS) also still has territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government.

SDF official Mustafa Bali, speaking to Reuters, described the assault as “the last battle”. He later wrote on Twitter that the attack had started and the enclave would “be cleared soon”.

The SDF had handled the last 10 days “patiently” as more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the besieged IS enclave, Bali said.

Senior SDF official Redur Xelil told Reuters the force hoped to capture the area by the end of February, but cautioned that IS would continue to pose “great and serious” security threats even after that.

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large areas of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

SDF ADVANCE

Two U.S. security sources said the U.S. government’s top experts strongly believe IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the main U.S. partner in Syria and has driven Islamic State out of a swathe of the north and east over the last four years.

After capturing Raqqa, the SDF advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province, attacking the jihadists in territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

The remaining Islamic State territory in Syria is west of the Euphrates.

Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.

But a top U.S. general said on Tuesday the group would pose an enduring threat following the U.S. withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel a menacing insurgency.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the U.S. military was preparing to withdraw from Syria by the end of April.

A U.S. official confirmed that target date to Reuters, saying the withdrawal included a pull-out from the U.S. military base at Tanf, near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan.

FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces ride on trucks as their convoy passes in Ain Issa, Syria October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

The U.S.-led coalition has said it is not discussing the timeline of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

(For a graphic on ‘Syria areas of control’ click here)

Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in London Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by John Stonestreet and David Holmes

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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