Syrian fighters close on last IS villages

A fighter from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance fire at IS positions in the Baghuz area (13 February 2019)Image copyright

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Fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they are facing fierce resistance

US-backed Syrian fighters are clearing Islamic State (IS) militants from the last two villages the jihadist group controls, military officials say.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance launched an assault at the weekend on Shajalah and Baghuz, near Syria’s border with Iraq.

The last militants remaining there are reportedly retreating and hiding among the local population.

Some have sought to escape among the hundreds of civilians fleeing on foot.

What is happening to those leaving?

Among the thousands of people who have fled the area, there are hundreds of foreign IS fighters and their families. They have handed themselves over to the SDF.

Maj Gen Christopher Ghika, a spokesman for the US-led multinational coalition supporting the alliance, said that some of the wives of IS fighters had sustained gunshot wounds while fleeing.

“These utterly despicable and ghastly acts further illustrate their barbaric nature and desperation as [IS] struggles to hold on to their remaining territory,” he said.

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Hundreds of women, many of them wives of IS fighters, have fled Baghuz in recent days

The wives have been taken to SDF-run camps for displaced people. Among them are many foreign nationals, including the British teenager Shamima Begum, who ran away from her home in 2015 to join IS.

Ms Begum, 19, told the Times newspaper on Wednesday that she had no regrets but wanted to come back to the UK as she was nine months pregnant.

Why is the battle taking so long?

SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said militants still wanting to fight were putting up “significant resistance” in an attempt to slow the clearance operation.

“There are many tunnels in Baghuz now. This is why the operation is dragging on,” he told AFP news agency. “There are many suicide bombers attacking our positions with explosives-laden cars and motorbikes.”

US-led coalition aircraft are carrying out strikes on IS positions inside the village and special forces are on the ground to advise SDF commanders.

What happens next?

Five years ago IS controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) of territory stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq, proclaimed the creation of a “caliphate”, imposed its brutal rule on almost eight million people and generated billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

Now, an estimated 1,000 militants and civilians are believed to be surrounded inside about 1 sq km of land in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

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Media captionIs Trump right to say the Islamic State group is beaten?

When Shajalah and Baghuz have been cleared, which could happen this week, US President Donald Trump is expected to declare the “defeat” of IS.

However, the UN’s counter-terrorism chief has warned IS remains a global threat.

Vladimir Voronkov said on Monday that IS was evolving into a covert network with up to 18,000 fighters still operating in Syria and Iraq and affiliates in a number of other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

In Iraq, sleeper cells active in sparsely populated rural areas are seeking to undermine government authority, create an atmosphere of lawlessness and sabotage societal reconciliation, according to the UN.

Gen Ghika stressed on Thursday that the end of the “physical caliphate” did not signal the end of the US-led coalition’s campaign against members of IS. “We will pursue them until that threat is eliminated,” he said.

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