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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Air strikes kill 23 in ISIS-held territory in Syria

It was not clear if the strikes in Hassakeh were carried out by the US-led coalition or the Iraqi air force

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces gather at the al-Tanak oil field as they prepare to relaunch a military campaign against ISIS near Abu Kamal, in the province of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. AFP/Delil Souleiman
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces gather at the al-Tanak oil field as they prepare to relaunch a military campaign against ISIS near Abu Kamal, in the province of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. AFP/Delil Souleiman

Air strikes killed at least 23 civilians on Tuesday in one of the last pockets of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, according to Syrian state media and an opposition-linked monitoring group, as US-backed forces in the area announced they have resumed their campaign against the extremists.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was not clear if the air strikes in the Hassakeh province were carried out by the US-led coalition or the Iraqi air force. The state-run Syrian News Agency said 25 civilians were killed in the strikes south of the town of Shadadi, blaming the US-led coalition.

The strikes took place in an area where the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are battling ISIS.

Lelwa Abdullah, an SDF spokeswoman in the adjacent Deir El Zour province, said Tuesday the final phase of a large operation against ISIS in eastern Syria had begun. She said the SDF would “liberate those areas and secure the Syrian-Iraqi border and end the [ISIS] presence in eastern Syria once and for all”.

The SDF had redeployed hundreds of its forces to western Syria after Turkish troops attacked the Kurdish-held Afrin enclave earlier this year, effectively putting operations against ISIS on hold.

Ms Abdullah said ISIS attacks had increased in recent weeks in parts of eastern Syria near the border with Iraq as the extremist group sought to regroup. She said the clearing operations would take place with the help of the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces across the border.

The US State Department said the days of ISIS controlling territory in Syria “are coming to an end”, and that the renewed operations were intended to “liberate the final ISIS strongholds in Syria”.

President Donald Trump has said he wants to pull out US troops as soon as the extremists are defeated. But state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US would “ensure that there is a strong and lasting footprint in Syria such that ISIS cannot return”.

Elsewhere in Syria on Tuesday, more than three dozen Syrians held for years by Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the country’s northwest were released as part of a deal to hand over areas around Damascus to the government, state media reported.

State-run Al Ikhbariya TV broadcast images of the released men, women and children, who arrived by bus at a government-controlled checkpoint in Aleppo province. Many were in tears, and they could be seen kissing and hugging Syrian soldiers. The captives had been held by the insurgents in northern Syria since 2015.

Insurgents have agreed to a series of evacuation deals for areas around the capital that have been besieged for years and subjected to heavy bombardment by government forces. The UN and rights groups have criticised the deals, saying they amount to forced displacement.

The agreement concerns Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that was a built-up residential area before the civil war. Militants still control parts of the camp and a neighbouring area, where they are battling government forces.

The 42 people freed on Tuesday are the first batch of more than 80 to be released. Under the deal, fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham group will withdraw from Yarmouk, while about 5,000 people in Foua and Kfraya, two north-western villages besieged by insurgents, will be allowed to relocate to government-held areas.

Al Ikhbariya said nearly 20 wounded or ill from the two besieged villages were evacuated Tuesday. But the evacuation has apparently stalled amid security concerns, with the residents asking that they all be evacuated together instead of in batches.

The Observatory said five buses carrying around 200 insurgents from Yarmouk arrived at the handover area south of Aleppo.