Assault on last IS Syria enclave begins

A US jeep in Baghuz, SyriaImage copyright

Image caption

The Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the US, are fighting to clear Baghuz of militants

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have launched another assault on the Islamic State group’s last enclave in Syria.

Head of the SDF media office, Mustafa Bali, tweeted their troops were in “direct violent clashes”.

Islamic State militants are centred in the town of Baghuz in eastern Syria.

Once the village is taken, the US and its allies are expected to formally declare the end of the “caliphate” proclaimed by IS in 2014.

The group once controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) of territory stretching across Syria and neighbouring Iraq, imposed its brutal rule on almost eight million people, and generated billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

After five years of fierce battles, local forces backed by world powers have driven IS out of all but a few hundred square metres near Syria’s border with Iraq.

On 1 March, the SDF said it had launched its final assault on Baghuz, declaring that nothing remained in the village “except for terrorists”.

However, after a weekend of intense air and artillery strikes, the alliance said it had to slow down the offensive “due to a small number of civilians held as human shields”.

About 3,000 people were evacuated on Monday and another 3,500, including 500 militants who surrendered, followed on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, a further 2,000 people left Baghuz, Reuters news agency reported. They were taken to an SDF checkpoint where they were searched, questioned and given food and water.

The final assault?

By Quentin Sommerville, BBC Middle East correspondent

The Islamic State group is down to just two tented encampments around Baghuz.

The area is under attack from the SDF and coalition warplanes. The camp is on fire – the Kurds say they targeted an IS weapons store.

For weeks there has been a series of ceasefires as injured fighters surrendered – along with tens of thousands of women and children – to Kurdish forces.

It’s not known how many people remain inside. The BBC was able to visit the edge of the IS-held territory where the black Islamic State group flag was still flying. Fighters fired occasional shots towards Kurdish lines.

A spokesman for the Western-backed forces said they were ready “to finish what is left in IS hands”. But it’s not the first time they have claimed this was the final assault on the tiny area.

Mr Bali told Reuters news agency no further civilians had come out of the town since Saturday.

He also said more than 4,000 militants have surrendered in the past month. Five SDF fighters who had been held hostage by IS were also freed.

But Mr Bali tweeted that the fate of other hostages remained unknown, including those of Italian priest Paolo Dall’Oglio and Lebanese journalist Samir Kassab.

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Media captionThe faces of the people abandoning IS’s final territory in Syria

Some of the women evacuated this week were defiant despite the situation, chanting “God is greatest” and “Islamic State will remain” as they passed reporters on the front line.

The women and their children from Baghuz, including many foreigners who travelled to Syria and Iraq to live under IS rule, will be transported by lorry to an SDF-controlled camp called al-Hol.

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