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Operation to liberate last IS Syria pocket slows amid concerns for trapped civilians

The SDF is a US-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance battling IS [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 March, 2019

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The SDF said it expected a “decisive battle” after an advance on Baghouz, although the offensive has slowed down to protect civilian life in the final IS pocket.
The Syrian Democratic Forces have been forced to slow down their offensive against the last Islamic State pocket in eastern Syria to protect remaining civilians in the area, a spokesman for a US-backed force said on Monday.

Forces from the Kurdish-Arab alliance are also facing surprise attacks by militants, including car bombs, landmines, suicide attacks and tunnel ambushes, in a final attempt to deter defeat in Baghouz.

“We’re slowing down the offensive in Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The SDF on Sunday said it expected a “decisive battle” after an advance which took 18 hours due to to IS-planted landmines and surprise attacks by IS fighters using underground tunnels.

“ISIS fighters have been using suicide vests and car bombs to slow down the SDF offensive and hide from Coalition strikes in the area of Baghouz,” Colonel Sean Ryan said, using an alternative name for the group.

Hundreds of IS fighters remain in Baghouz, a village in eastern Syria, and many have refused to surrender. Some IS militants also remain in the vast Badia desert of southern Syria.

Victory would be declared over IS in Baghouz in "in the next few days", said Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar.

The exodus of IS-affiliated women and children, as well as captured Yazidi civilians, from the village has caused the population of the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria to swell to more than 50,000.

Syria's Kurds have long urged their home countries to take the detainees back, but nations have been reluctant.

Kurds have played a key role in battling IS in Syria. The SDF have now cornered the jihadists in their last stretch of territory near the border with Iraq in a final bid to flush them out.

The capture of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group's hold on territory in Syria and Iraq.

The military operation was halted on earlier this month as the SDF said a large number of civilians and hostages were holed up in the territory, which sits atop caves and tunnels where they had been hiding.

The group's so-called "caliphate" that at the height of the militant group’s power in 2014 ruled over an area the size of the United Kingdom.

The final push came as US President Donald Trump again jumped the gun on declaring victory over the jihadists.

"We just took over - you know, you kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent - the caliphate in Syria. Now it's 100 percent. We just took over," Trump said Thursday in remarks to US service members in Alaska on his way back from Vietnam.

IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries, but that speck of terrain is all that's left of the group's self-declared "caliphate".

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