US-backed forces pinning down IS fighters in last east Syrian pocket


Deir al-Zour, Syria - By Khalil Hamlo- US-allied Syrian fighters are "besieging" Islamic State in a tiny area in the radical group’s last eastern Syrian stronghold, a Kurdish commander said Saturday.

A week ago, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia allied with the United States, started an offensive to expel Islamic State from the village of Baghuz, the only area still under its control in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, near the Iraqi border.

"Daesh mercenaries are being besieged in an area of 600 to 700 square metres," SDF commander Ciya Furat said Saturday, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
He added that SDF forces were moving cautiously for fear of civilians being used by Islamic State as human shields.
Ciya also said the terrorist group was holding an unspecified number of SDF fighters as prisoners. 
"Defeat of Daesh will not take days. We will announce good news to the region and the entire world," he added at a press conference in Deir al-Zour.
Adnan Afrin, another Kurdish commander, said Bughaz was virtually under SDF control.
"Daesh movements have come under SDF control," Afrin said.
"Our forces are completely besieging Daesh. But the presence of civilians prevents us from storming it," he told dpa.
"We have set no specific time for the siege, but we hope it will not be long," Afrin said.
Should Islamic State lose its last bastion in energy-rich eastern Syria, the extremist group would be confined to a desert area in the centre of the country.  
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said   Islamic State control in the eastern section of Deir al-Zour ended after hundreds of its fighters had surrendered under a deal with the US-led alliance.
Some 200 Islamic State insurgents surrendered and were transported to an unknown destination early Saturday, observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
SDF forces were carrying out a mop-up operation inside underground tunnels in the area in search of remnant hardline jihadists, who rejected the alleged deal, according to the watchdog.
So far, there has been no comment from the US-led alliance fighting Islamic State in Syria.  
US President Donald Trump said Friday he expects an announcement about Syria and the fight against Islamic State within 24 hours.
In December, Trump surprised allies when he announced the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria, saying the mission of defeating Islamic State had been achieved.
His decision drew criticism from SDF officials, who warned that the pull-out would lead to Islamic State's resurgence.
On Saturday, US Vice President Mike Pence defended the decision.
"This is a change in tactics, not a change in mission," Pence said at an international security meeting in Munich, Germany.
"As we enter this new phase, the United States will continue to work with all of our allies to hunt down the remnants of ISIS [Islamic State] wherever and whenever they rear their ugly head," he added.


Saturday, February 16th 2019
By Khalil Hamlo

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