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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Baghouz offensive: ISIS launches desperate counter-attack to push back SDF

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said the battle was as good as over

Islamic state fighters and their families after surrendering in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz on Tuesday. Reuters
Islamic state fighters and their families after surrendering in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz on Tuesday. Reuters

ISIS militants launched two desperate counter-attacks against advancing coalition forces on Wednesday from the tiny speck of land that they still hold in eastern Syria.

They made no progress and they were stopped, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.

The first counterattack began just before dawn from the west of a riverside pocket in the Syrian village of Baghouz where the ISIS group has been making its last stand, said a commander with the US-backed SDF. The second, launched in the afternoon, was "much stronger".

"They took advantage of smoke and dust over Baghouz," Reuters quoted the SDF as saying. "Fighting is still continuing. [ISIS] made no progress so far and were stopped."

There were no casualties. "They attempted to carry out suicide attacks but failed," the SDF said.

Clashes were ongoing as the Kurdish-Arab force beat back the counter-assault. It also tried to secure an area it had captured from ISIS the day before. At least four SDF fighters were killed in the intense fighting on Wednesday.

ISIS is facing an imminent defeat in its final enclave, as hundreds of militant fighters and their families surrendered and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said the battle was as good as over on Tuesday.

The enclave is the last shred of territory held by the militants who have been driven from roughly one third of Iraq and Syria over the past four years.

The US-led coalition helped the SDF offensive with air strikes on the final ISIS positions. It said it would continue them "day and night" to prevent any militants escaping.

"Combined with the SDF ground movement, the final push in (Baghouz) continues," the coalition said.

The ferocious assault of Baghouz continued overnight on Tuesday and carried on into Wednesday amid the ISIS fightback. Live footage broadcast by the Kurdish Ronahi TV showed a series of large explosions lighting up the night sky over the pocket, apparently from an ammunition dump blowing up.

Smoke billowed past burning buildings, lit orange by flares and raging fires, as tracer fire poured into the enclave amid a constant sound of shooting and blasts.

SDF official Mustafa Bali said between 1,500 to 2,000 ISIS fighters and their families surrendered en masse on Tuesday and that the militants' defeat was very near.

"Once our forces confirm that everyone who wants to surrender has done so ... the clashes will resume," he said.

The coalition said in an email earlier on Tuesday there were an estimated "few hundred" foreign ISIS fighters remaining in Baghouz who had decided to fight to the end.

On Monday, the Baghouz enclave had been pounded with a barrage of rockets, but the situation calmed on Tuesday morning before the bombardment resumed.

The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has been advancing slowly into Baghouz to minimise its losses from sniper fire and landmines.

Three SDF fighters have been killed, Mr Bali said on Twitter.

Islamic State's defences include extensive tunnels. The militant group's most hardened foreign fighters are holed up inside the enclave, the SDF has said.

Fighters surrendering from Baghouz are being questioned and searched.

Even as the last shred of its physical statelet crumbled, the group put out a new propaganda video, filmed in recent weeks inside Baghouz, insisting on its claim to leadership of all Muslims and calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

"Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell," it showed an ISIS member identified as Abu Abd al-Azeem saying.

Most of the people evacuated from the diminishing Islamic State territory have been transported to a camp for internally displaced people in Al Hol, in northeastern Syria, where the United Nations says conditions are dire.

The camp, designed to accommodate 20,000 people, is now sheltering more than 66,000. The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that 106 people, mainly infants, have died since December on the journey to Al Hol, which takes at least six hours.

Many evacuees, particularly foreigners, still express unshakeable support for ISIS, posing difficult security, legal and moral questions for their countries of origin.

Those issues were underscored on Friday with the death of the newborn son of Shamima Begum, a British woman who left London to join Islamic State when she was a schoolgirl. Britain stripped her of her citizenship on security grounds last month.

Updated: March 13, 2019 06:47 PM

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