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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

ISIS injures two British soldiers in Syria as militants battle to survive 

The pair were transported by helicopter after the attack that left a Kurdish fighter dead

US army vehicles supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in Hajin, eastern Syria.  AFP
US army vehicles supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in Hajin, eastern Syria.  AFP

ISIS militants are putting up fierce defences in eastern Syria, following advances by US-backed forces on one of the last militant pockets in the Euphrates River Valley.

A missile fired by ISIS on the outskirts of the village of Al Shaafa on Saturday wounded two British soldiers in the US-led coalition and killed one Kurdish fighter, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The two British soldiers were transported by helicopter to receive medical care, the observatory said. When contacted by The National, the UK Ministry of Defence said it could not comment as the troops are special forces.

A second missile attack on Sunday targeted an SDF position on the flanks of Al Shaafa and killed scores of Kurdish fighters, the activist-run DeirEzzor24 monitor said.

The SDF was not available for comment.

Fierce fighting in and around Al Shaafa since Saturday comes after the SDF and coalition forces made advances in the area in recent days.

Both the Observatory and DeirEzzor24 had previously reported that the village – one of the last ISIS-held pockets in Syria – had come under complete SDF control. But, clashes between militants and US-backed fighters erupted on Sunday inside Al Shaafa, according to Step News Agency, an activist-run media outlet affiliated with the Syrian opposition.

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Clashes east of the Euphrates have killed more than 1,000 ISIS militants and nearly 600 SDF fighters since the fighting began in September, according to the Observatory. Thousands of people have also fled the militant-held pocket towards Kurdish-held territory in Deir Ezzor province over the past month, the war monitor said.

ISIS once controlled large areas of territory across Iraq and Syria but its territorial foothold has fallen significantly in the last two years. One of its last major strongholds, the town of Hajin in eastern Syria, fell in December.

The US-led coalition has intensified its aerial bombardment of ISIS-held territory east of the Euphrates after US President Donald Trump announced last month that he would be pulling out his country’s approximately 2,000 troops from Syria, according to the observatory.

The speed of that withdrawal appears to have slowed as key presidential aides have warned him about the risks of leaving a vacuum that could be filled by ISIS or regional foe Iran.

The observatory on Sunday said that ISIS militants also launched an attack on SDF positions near oilfields in the eastern strip of Deir Ezzor province. Militants launched an attack on the outskirts of the Al Bassan, Al Azraq and Al Sijan oilfields, leading to clashes with the SDF in the area.

Elsewhere in Syria, infighting between Al Qaeda-linked fighters and a Turkey-backed rebel alliance continued to rattle opposition-held territory in Syria’s north.

Nearly one week of battles between the Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham alliance and the Ankara-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) in the western countryside of Aleppo, the southern flanks of Idlib and neighbouring territory in Hama has killed 119 fighters, including 61 Al Qaeda-linked militants and 58 NLF fighters. An additional eight civilians have also been killed by fighting since Tuesday.

Tahrir Al Sham militants on Sunday captured the town of Atarib – a major rebel bastion in western Aleppo – after launching a four-pronged assault on rebels in the town. NLF affiliates in the area struck a surrender deal with militants, granting them control over the strategic area, 25km southeast of the Turkish border.

In recent days, Tahrir Al Sham militants have also managed to capture most territory held by another NLF affiliate – the Noureddine Al Zenki rebel group – following days of brutal fighting in the western Aleppo countryside.

Advances by Al Qaeda-linked militants in the province have succeeded in separating Turkey-backed rebels in western Aleppo from their affiliates in the northwest.

Skirmishes are also taking place in the Idlib border village of Atmah, located just east of the Turkish frontier.

Updated: January 6, 2019 02:29 PM

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