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Fight against IS enters final moments in Syria

March 15, 2019 00:00:00

DAMASCUS: A Syrian man riding his bicycle near a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Thursday. Assad has won his war for political survival but his country is fractured — AFP

DAMASCUS, Mar 14 (Agencies): The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Baghouz is as good as over, with the armed group facing imminent defeat.

Thick black smoke rose from the ISIL-held encampment on Wednesday, as air strikes and mortar fire pounded Baghouz for a third night in a row.

The Kurdish-led SDF has unleashed a deluge of fire on Baghouz, a little cluster of hamlets and farmland on the banks of the Euphrates river, with around 3,000 ISIL fighters and their families surrendering since Monday.

Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the SDF, said that after the series of surrenders, the offensive against ISIL was "as good as over".

"The operation is over, or as good as over, but requires a little more time to be completed practically".

As the crackle and thud of gunfire and shelling rang out from the encampment early on Wednesday, the SDF said that three Yazidi women and four children held captive by ISIL had been rescued.

"The objective of our advance is to terrorise ISIL fighters so they surrender, and for the civilians to come out," said Ali Cheir, an SDF commander.

Baghouz is all that remains of ISIL's so-called caliphate after it lost its major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.

Since December, around 60,000 people have left Baghouz, with most of those headed to the al-Hol camp.

The outpouring has sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Kurdish-run camps, which are struggling to accommodate the mass influx of women and children.

Retaking Baghouz would mark a milestone in the campaign against the armed group, which once controlled almost one-third of Iraq and Syria under its self-declared "caliphate".

Separate offensives were launched by different forces in both countries eventually forcing ISIL back to Baghouz.

The SDF announced a military operation to liberate Baghouz in September, but the Kurds said they held off a full-blown assault after it became apparent that a huge number of civilians were still inside.

Outside of Baghouz, dozens of evacuees sat in clusters on a field, a day after thousands handed themselves over to US-backed forces.

While dozens have been killed in clashes in recent days, hundreds of ISIL fighters are still believed to be holding out in the tent city, ready to fight to the death.

The armed group put out a new propaganda video earlier this week, insisting on its claim to leadership of all Muslims and calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

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