US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces say they have begun the final push to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in the last pocket it holds in eastern Syria.
“The SDF have started to launch … the decisive battle to finish off the remaining ISIL terrorists in the village of Baghouz,” Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Mustafa Bali said in Arabic on Twitter.
Bali tweeted that the offensive began Saturday after more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the ISIL-held area in the eastern province of Deir Az Zor.
Bali says the aim of the current push is to end the military presence of “Daesh terrorists,” using an Arabic acronym to refer to ISIL.
Backed by air raids by the US-led coalition against ISIL, the Kurdish-Arab alliance has in recent months cornered the remaining ISIL fighters in a final patch of territory in the eastern province of Deir Az Zor.
After a pause of more than a week to allow civilians to flee, the SDF said Saturday it had resumed the fight to seize the last four-square-kilometre patch from ISIL.
Bali said there could be up to 600 ISIL fighters still inside the pocket, most of them foreigners. Hundreds of civilians are also believed to be inside.
Attack near oil field
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that since the SDF began its offensive against ISIL in the area on September 10, some 1,279 ISIL gunmen and 678 SDF fighters have been killed.
It said 401 civilians, including 144 children and teenagers, have been killed since then.
Earlier Saturday, ISIL fighters attacked SDF fighters near an oil field in the country’s east, triggering air attacks by the US-led coalition.
The observatory said 12 ISIL fighters attacked the SDF and clashed with them for several hours until most of the attackers were killed early Saturday. It said 10 attackers were killed, while two managed to flee.
The fighting was concentrated near the al-Omar oil field, Syria’s largest.
US President Donald Trump predicted on Wednesday that ISIL will have lost all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria by next week.
In December, Trump surprised allies when he when announced the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria, saying ISIL had been defeated.
The Kurdish-led SDF launched its offensive to end the ISIL presence in Syria in September, a battle that left hundreds of fighters dead on both sides.