World

U.S.-backed fighters break into Islamic State holdout in east Syria

AFP-JIJI

U.S.-backed Syrian fighters have broken into an eastern holdout of the Islamic State group on the Iraqi border, a commander and a monitor said Thursday, months into an anti-jihadist offensive.

A Kurdish-led alliance, backed by airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, has been battling to oust IS from the pocket in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.

But the Syrian Democratic Forces suffered a series of setbacks, including due to a vicious fightback by jihadis and bad weather that impeded visibility.

On Thursday, an SDF commander said the alliance had managed to break into the pocket and wrest part of its main town from IS.

“Heavy clashes are ongoing inside the town of Hajin, after our forces advanced inside and started to control some of its neighborhoods,” Redur Khalil told AFP.

The SDF opened up humanitarian corridors out of the beleaguered pocket, allowing more than 1,000 civilians — mostly woman and children — to flee from Hajin in the past few days.

Khalil accused IS of using civilians as human shields, and said the corridors would remain open.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the SDF launched an attack on Tuesday and then dozens of families had managed to flee.

The attack was backed by the heaviest shelling and air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition since the start of the offensive on the Hajin pocket on Sept. 10, Observatory chief Rami Abdelrahman said.

Since Tuesday, 34 jihadis including three suicide bombers, and 17 SDF fighters have been killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.

In almost three months of battle, more than 820 jihadis and more than 480 U.S.-backed fighters have been killed, the monitor says.

More than 300 civilians have been killed in that period, its says, though the coalition has repeatedly said it did not target non-combatants.

IS overran large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, declaring a caliphate across territories it controlled.

But various offensives in both countries have routed the jihadis from most of that land, crushing their dreams of statehood.

In Syria, the jihadis retain a presence in the vast Badia desert that stretches to the Iraqi border, as well as the pocket under attack around Hajin.

“The liberation of Hajin will not signify the end of IS,” Khalil said, warning it would retain sleeper cells. “Operations to expel them will still last a long time.”