Hundreds flee US-backed Syria battle for last IS holdout
NEAR BAGHOUZ: US-backed forces pressed the battle to expel diehard jihadists from the last pocket of land under their control in eastern Syria after hundreds fled the holdout overnight.
Outside the “Baghouz pocket”, the plains were littered with empty pistachio-coloured rocket shells, water bottles, clothes left behind, and rotting dog carcasses.
The extremist group declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2014, but various military campaigns have chipped it down to a fragment on the Iraqi border.
After a pause of more than a week to allow out civilians, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared a last push to retake the pocket from the extremists on Saturday.
Aided by the warplanes and artillery of a US-led coalition, the Kurdish-led alliance has pressed into a patch of four square kilometres (one square mile).
SDF spokesman Mostefa Bali said heavy clashes were underway on Tuesday, after hundreds fled the battle zone during the night.
“A group of 600 civilians escaped from Baghouz at one in the morning and they are being searched now,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the new arrivals included women and children from France and Germany.
“Most of those who got out are foreigners,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Coalition spokesperson Sean Ryan said US-backed forces were facing a fierce fightback.
“The progress is slow and methodical as the enemy is fully entrenched and IS fighters continue to conduct counter attacks,” he said.
“The coalition continues to strike at IS targets whenever available.”The SDF launched the battle to expel IS from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September, slowly tightening the noose around the jihadists and their families since December.
In the past two months, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of jihadist fighters, have fled into SDF-held areas, the Observatory says.