IS Defend Last Syria Redoubt, as Family Members Flee


Jihadist fighters made a desperate last stand in eastern Syria on Wednesday, while their wives and children fled the final, blood-soaked implosion of their "caliphate".

The Syrian Democratic Forces on Saturday launched a final push to expel IS fighters from the sole remaining morsel of the proto-state they declared in 2014 across Syria and Iraq.

Thousands of people have flooded out of the so-called "Baghouz pocket" near the Iraqi border in recent days -- mostly women and children, but also suspected jihadists.

Near a screening point for new arrivals from IS territory on Wednesday, an AFP reporter saw about two dozen coalition forces searching men who had escaped.

A line of about five waited to be patted down, including one man in a rickety wheelchair.

A coalition force member led one of the younger men to a subsequent point for a retina scan.

Further on, those that had been searched were kneeling on the ground with coalition troops circling around them.

Hundreds of people fled the IS holdout in the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said.

Inside on Wednesday, the Kurdish-led SDF were advancing slowly against hundreds of jihadists.

"We have retaken positions lost in a counterattack launched two days ago by IS. We have progressed and taken new positions," SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said.

- 'Mines' -

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the US-backed fighters were making painstaking progress.

"There are mines throughout the sector," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based war monitor.

"The SDF are firing rockets," he said, and both sides were locked in heavy clashes on the edges of Baghouz village.

The alliance launched a military offensive to expel IS from the eastern banks of the Euphrates in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor in September.

Since then, more than 1,300 SDF fighters and 650 jihadists have been killed, while more than 400 civilians have also lost their lives.

US President Donald Trump on Monday said the coalition may declare victory over IS in Syria within days.

A victory in Baghouz would allow the United States to withdraw all its 2,000 troops from Syria, as announced by Trump in December.

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan on Tuesday made an unannounced visit to Baghdad and met with the Iraqi premier over a continued US troop presence in Iraq after a pullout from Syria.

Asked whether they had touched on the possibility of US troops in Iraq deploying across the border into Syria for operations against the Islamic State group, Shanahan said: "It just did not come up."

- Foreign jihadists -

Trump's pullout announcement shocked Washington's allies, as well as US military commanders.

In a report last week, the US Department of Defence warned that without sustained counterterrorism pressure, IS could resurge within months.

Since early December, more than 38,000 people, mostly wives and children of IS fighters, have fled into SDF-held areas, the Observatory says.

That figure includes around 3,400 suspected jihadists detained by the SDF, according to the monitor.

Syria's Kurds hold hundreds of suspected foreign IS fighters and have long urged their home countries to repatriate them, but these have been reluctant.

A senior Pentagon official told reporters travelling with Shanahan that Washington was pressing its allies to repatriate their nationals taken prisoner during the fight against IS.

"We think coalition members need to take responsibility for their citizens who are fighters. It's been a message we've delivered time and time again. And we are seeing hopeful progress," he said.

Syria's civil war has killed 360,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

It has since spiralled into a complex conflict involving world powers and jihadists.

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