Kurdish-led fighters advance on last IS bastion in eastern Syria

Blanche Robertson
March 21, 2019

Backed by air power and special forces from a USA -led coalition, the SDF has pushed Islamic State from nearly the entire northeastern corner of Syria, defeating it in Raqqa in 2017 and driving it to its last enclave at Baghouz a year ago.

Clashes are still ongoing in the final Islamic State enclave at Baghouz and the jihadists are still holding some families as human shields, a media official with the US -backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Tuesday.

Men believed to be Islamic State fighters, women dressed in black robes and some children stood around the shabby camp area next to high rocks strewn with bits of tents and vehicles.

USA officials said US -backed forces had captured fighters tied to a January suicide bombing at a cafe in Syria that killed four Americans.

The People's Protection Units, or YPG, say Lorenzo Orsetti, 33, joined their ranks in 2017 and died on Monday during operations to capture the last area occupied by IS in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria.

Smoke rises in the so-called Islamic State's last remaining position on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River, in the Syrian village of Baghouz.

"The use of threatening language against the SDF who have liberated and protected the north and east of Syria from terrorists only serves those forces working to divide Syria", the semi-autonomous administration of northern and northeastern Syria said in a statement. The sheer number who emerged - almost 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials - took the Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise. But SDF commanders have stopped speculating when the battle may finally be over.

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They then live streamed the footage 24 hours a day to a subscription website with some 4,000 members, hosted on a server overseas. The footage was live-streamed online for subscribers, some of whom paid monthly fees to view the unlawful content.

In the last two weeks, many Islamic State militants appeared to be among those evacuating.

Hundreds of injured and sick suspected IS militants were captured during the SDF's push for control of the encampment, he said.

Since Jan. 9, more than 60,000 people have left the enclave, about half of them surrendering Islamic State supporters including some 5,000 fighters, the SDF said on Sunday.

"This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh", Bali said.

Sixteen people were killed by a suicide bomber at a restaurant in Manbij in northern Syria, including Navy Chief Petty Officer Shannon M. Kent, 35, of Pine Plains, NY, Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, FL, Defense Intelligence Agency civilian Scott A. Wirtz, 42, of St. Louis, MO, and interpreter Ghadir Taher, 27, of East Point, GA, a naturalized US citizen. An audio recording released overnight purported to carry a message from spokesman Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer saying the group would stay strong and urged fresh attacks.

Mustafa Bali says the suspects were captured following technical surveillance by the group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

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