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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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SDF

SDF will keep fighting Islamic State sleeper cells

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Mazloum Kobani, Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) commander in chief, talks as he announces the destruction of Islamic State’s control of land in eastern Syria, at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria March 23, 2019.

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) formally announced the destruction of Islamic State’s control of land in eastern Syria on Saturday but said it would continue its military and security campaigns against jihadist sleeper cells.

At a televised ceremony, its general command called on the Syrian government, which has sworn to retake the whole country, to recognize the autonomous administration that runs areas the SDF controls in northeast Syria.

It also called on Turkey, which regards the SDF as a terrorist organization and has staged incursions into Syria against it, to leave Syrian territory, especially the mostly Kurdish region of Afrin.

Reporting by Rodi Said and Angus McDowall, editing by Louise Heavens

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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SDF

U.S. ally declares Islamic State defeated, caliphate eliminated

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BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State has been defeated at its final shred of territory of Baghouz in Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Saturday, announcing the end of its self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

FILE PHOTO: Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand together in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 20, 2019. Picture taken March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

The SDF declared the “total elimination of (the) so-called caliphate”, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, wrote on Twitter.

“Baghouz has been liberated. The military victory against Daesh has been accomplished,” he wrote.

The SDF has been battling to capture Baghouz at the Iraqi border for weeks.

Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “We renew our pledge to continue the war and to pursue their remnants until their complete elimination,” he wrote.

Though the defeat of Islamic State at Baghouz ends the group’s grip over the jihadist quasi-state straddling Syria and Iraq that it declared in 2014, it remains a threat.

Some of its fighters still hold out in Syria’s remote central desert and in Iraqi cities they have slipped into the shadows, staging sudden shootings or kidnappings and awaiting a chance to rise again.

The United States believes the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is in Iraq. He stood at the pulpit of the great medieval mosque in Mosul in 2014 to declare himself caliph, sovereign over all Muslims.

Further afield, jihadists in Afghanistan, Nigeria and elsewhere have shown no sign of recanting their allegiance to Islamic State, and intelligence services say its devotees in the West might plot new attacks.

The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, said on Friday Islamic State was not yet finished in Syria, adding that it was the Damascus government backed by Russia and Iran that was genuinely battling it, not the United States.

Still, the fall of Baghouz is a big milestone in a fight against the jihadist group waged by numerous local and global forces – some of them sworn enemies – over more than four years.

It also marks a big moment in Syria’s eight-year war, wiping out the territory of one of the main contestants, with the rest split between President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey-backed rebels and the Kurdish-led SDF.

Assad and his Iranian allies have sworn to recapture all Syria, and Turkey has threatened to drive out the SDF, which it sees as a terrorist group, by force. The continued presence of U.S. troops in northeast Syria might avert this.

GRISLY RULE

Islamic State originated as an al Qaeda faction in Iraq, but it took advantage of Syria’s civil war to seize land there and split from the global jihadist organization.

In 2014, it suddenly grabbed Iraq’s Mosul, one of the region’s great historic cities, as well as Syria’s Raqqa, and swathes of land each side of the border.

It declared an end to modern countries and called on supporters to leave their homes and join the jihadist utopia it claimed to be erecting, trumpeting its currency, flag, passports and military parades.

Oil production, extortion and antiquities smuggling financed its agenda, which included the slaughter of some minorities, public slave auctions of captured women, grotesque punishments for minor crimes and the choreographed killing of hostages.

Those excesses brought an array of forces against it, forcing it from Mosul and Raqqa in a year of heavy defeats in 2017 and driving it, eventually, down the Euphrates to Baghouz.

Over the past two months some 60,000 people poured out of that dwindling enclave, fleeing SDF bombardment and a shortage of food so severe that some said they were reduced to cooking grass.

A mass grave the SDF discovered there last month showed there were other dangers in the enclave, though it has released no details on the identities of the victims or how they died.

Civilians made up more than half the people leaving Baghouz, the SDF said, including Islamic State victims such as women from the Iraqi Yazidi sect whom the jihadists had sexually enslaved.

Thousands of the group’s unbending supporters also abandoned the enclave while still vowing their allegiance to a ruined caliphate and showing no remorse for its victims.

At displacement camps in northeast Syria where they were sent by the SDF, the hardliners, including many foreign women who came to Syria and Iraq to marry jihadists, had to be kept away from other, often traumatized, residents.

Their fate has befuddled foreign governments, who see them as a security threat and are loath to accede to SDF entreaties to take them back home.

DEFEAT

As the fighting progressed in recent weeks, the convoys of trucks from Baghouz started to include hundreds, and then thousands, of surrendering jihadist fighters, many hobbling from their wounds.

The SDF said it captured hundreds more in recent weeks who tried to slip through its cordon and escape into Iraq or across the Euphrates and into the Syrian desert.

At the end, they were besieged in a tiny camp full of rusting vehicles and makeshift shelters, pinned against the Euphrates and overlooked by hills held by the SDF.

Islamic State released video from inside that miserable, shell-pounded enclave, showing its last fighters still shooting at the SDF as smoke billowed overhead.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 20, 2019. Picture taken March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

It was an attempt to shape the narrative of its defeat, portraying it as a heroic last stand against overwhelming odds and a call to arms for future jihadists.

But the footage shown by the SDF in recent weeks was of long lines of abject, surrendering fighters, sitting or squatting in a desolate landscape, their dreams dashed.

Reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor province and a Reuters journalist in Baghouz; Writing by Tom Perry/Angus McDowall; Editing by Robert Birsel

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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