Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

US-backed forces push into last ISIS toehold in Syria

High-value ISIS militants may be hiding-out in the town of Hajin

US-backed forces are pictured near the village of Susah in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. AFP 
US-backed forces are pictured near the village of Susah in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. AFP 

US-backed forces in Syria have pushed deep into the country’s last major ISIS holdout, where high-value militant targets are believed to still be present.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have entered the centre of Hajin, the main town in an ISIS-held pocket on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter.

A video posted by the SDF official showed fighters walking in the town, where damage was extensive. Gunfire was heard in the background.

The National could not independently verify the authenticity of the video.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Kurdish-led force has “destroyed ISIS defences,” in Hajin and has captured wide swaths of territory from militants over the past 48 hours.

The war monitor said militants were confined to the eastern flanks of Hajin and tunnels built inside the town. Some 7,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the town, according to the UN.

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ISIS has been pushed from nearly all the territory it ruled in Iraq and Syria, but the militant group has still managed to retain a toehold near the Iraqi border for more than a year.

The pocket around Hajin, is only about 20 square miles, and is believed to be home to some high-profile ISIS militants, who fled former ISIS territories.

Mr Bali on Wednesday said ISIS was "still strong" in Hajin, adding that hundreds of foreign fighters are based in the town.

In September, the SDF, which now control much of eastern Syria, announced a final push against militants in Hajin, but deadly ISIS counter-attacks stymied progress.

The Kurdish-led alliance temporarily suspended operations in October because of Turkish threats on Kurdish heartlands further north.

Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to launch a new operation against the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish group based in area’s near Turkey’s border.

The offensive, if it happens, threatens to derail operations against ISIS in and around Hajin.

US officials are hoping to block a Turkish offensive by establishing observation posts in Kurdish-held villages overlooking the Turkish border.

The Pentagon has said "unilateral military action into north-east Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern."

"We would find any such actions unacceptable," Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson said.

Updated: December 13, 2018 03:43 PM

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