‘Heavy clashes’ as US-backed forces battle IS in Syria

BEIRUT (AFP) – United States (US)-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting as they pressed the battle against the last shred of the Islamic State (IS) group’s “caliphate” in eastern Syria yesterday, a war monitor said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by a US-led coalition, announced a final push to retake the extremist pocket near the Iraqi border late Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow civilians to flee.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes between both sides yesterday morning, as coalition planes and artillery bombarded extremist 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 war monitor.

The SDF launched an offensive to expel IS from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September.

An armoured vehicle belonging to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the front line village of Baghouz in eastern Syria. – AFP

The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down extremist-held territory to a patch of just four square kilometres on the eastern banks of the Euphrates.

Up to 600 extremists could still remain inside, most of them foreigners, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

Since fighting intensified in December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of extremist fighters, have fled out into SDF-held desert areas, the Observatory said.

That figure includes some 3,200 suspected extremists detained by the SDF, according to the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

At the height of their rule, the extremists imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law on a territory spanning parts of Syria and Iraq that was roughly the size of Britain.

But separate military offensives in both countries, including by the SDF, have since retaken the vast bulk of the cross-border “caliphate” they declared in 2014.