Iraq News - Local News - Baghdadpost

Hundreds flee US-backed Syria battle for last ISIS holdout

US-backed forces pressed the battle to expel diehard jihadists from the last pocket of land under their control in eastern Syria on Tuesday after hundreds fled the holdout overnight.

The extremist group declared the so-called "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq in 2014, but various military campaigns have chipped it down to a fragment on the Iraqi border.

After a pause of more than a week to allow out civilians, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared a last push to retake the "Baghouz pocket" from the extremists on Saturday.

Aided by the warplanes and artillery of a US-led coalition, the Kurdish-led alliance has made way into a patch of four square kilometres (one square mile).

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said heavy clashes were ongoing on Tuesday, after hundreds fled the battle zone overnight.

"A group of 600 civilians escaped from Baghouz at one in the morning and they are being searched now," he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the new arrivals included women and children from France and Germany.

"Most of those who got out are foreigners," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Coalition spokesperson Sean Ryan said US-backed forces were facing a fierce fightback.

"The progress is slow and methodical as the enemy is fully entrenched and ISIS fighters continue to conduct counter attacks," he said.

"The coalition continues to strike at ISIS targets whenever available."

The SDF launched the battle to expel ISIS from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September, slowly tightening the noose around the jihadists and their families since December.

Once the "caliphate" is declared over, the fight will continue to eliminate ISIS sleeper cells, the SDF and their allies have said.

"After Baghouz, clearing operations will have to take place as well," Ryan said.

"ISIS has purposely left IEDs (improvised explosive devices) behind to intentionally kill innocent civilians."

The jihadist group, also known as ISIS, retains a presence in Syria's vast Badia desert and has continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held areas.

US President Donald Trump on Monday said that the coalition may declare victory over ISIS in the region in the coming days.

"Our brave warriors have liberated virtually 100 percent of ISIS (territory) in Iraq and Syria," he said.

"Soon it will be announced, soon, maybe over the next week, maybe less," he told a rally in the US city of El Paso.

Trump shocked Washington's allies in December by announcing a pullout of all 2,000 US troops from war-torn Syria.

The decision has left Syria's Kurds scrambling for protection from Damascus against a long threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey.

After decades of marginalisation, the Kurds have largely stayed out of the eight-year civil war, instead setting up their own semi-autonomous institutions in northeast Syria.

Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.