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Thursday 22 March 2018

Islamic State leader 'may be in eastern Syrian city of Boukamal'

Syrian pro-government troops taking up positions and firing on militants' positions on the Iraq-Syria border (AP)
Syrian pro-government troops taking up positions and firing on militants' positions on the Iraq-Syria border (AP)

Islamic State's leader may be holed up in an IS pocket in the eastern Syrian town of Boukamal, which government forces and their allies recaptured this week, according to reports.

The Syrian Central Military Media said that as Syrian troops and their allies conducted search operations in Boukamal, they "got the information" that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might be "in one of the pockets" in the town.

The report did not elaborate on how the soldiers heard about al-Baghdadi or what they were doing about the information.

Boukamal, IS's last major stronghold in Syria, was taken on Thursday.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said he does not have such a report on al-Baghdadi's whereabouts.

If al-Baghdadi is killed or captured it would be another blow for the organisation which has lost more than 90% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, where it declared a caliphate in June 2014.

His whereabouts and the question of whether he is dead or alive have been a continuing source of mystery and confusion.

Mr Abdurrahman and Omar Abu Laila, a Europe-based opposition activist originally from Syria's eastern province of Deir el-Zour, both denied the report that al-Baghdadi is in Boukamal.

Mr Abdurrahman said IS launched a counter-offensive on Boukamal, capturing more than 40% of the town, mostly its northern neighbourhoods.

"The fighting is ongoing, now close to the town's centre," Mr Abdurrahman said, adding that when IS fighters withdrew from Boukamal on Thursday it was a trap they set to hit back at government forces and their allies.

Mr Abu Laila said IS fighters control most of Boukamal, adding that government claims that al-Baghdadi is in the town is to cover for their losses.

In September, al-Baghdadi released an audio message in which he urged his followers to burn their enemies everywhere and target "media centres of the infidels". It was his first purported audio release in nearly a year.

Al-Baghdadi has only appeared in public once in 2014 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Russian officials said in June there was a "high probability" that al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group's de facto capital that the extremists lost last month.

US officials later said they believed he was still alive.

Al-Baghdadi's whereabouts are unknown but he is believed to be in IS's dwindling territory in eastern Syria. Opposition activists say he is also likely to be somewhere in the wide desert that stretches toward Iraq.

Press Association

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