Tuesday 19 March 2019

Fears for safety of prisoners slows final push to drive Isil from Syria stronghold

War games: Children play in a rebel-held part of Deraa, Syria. Photo: Reuters
War games: Children play in a rebel-held part of Deraa, Syria. Photo: Reuters

Philip Issa

The US-backed Syrian forces' push to defeat Isil in its last bastion in Syria has been slowed by the presence of civilians and scores of prisoners held by the extremists, officials said.

The official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who goes by the name Ciyager, said Isil militants are still holding 300 prisoners, both civilians and SDF fighters, adding that their fate is unknown.

The campaign to uproot the militants from the eastern banks of the Euphrates River began in September, pushing them down towards a last corner in the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border.

The military operation has been halted several times since February 12 as the SDF said that a large number of civilians and hostages were in the territory, a tent camp above a network of caves and tunnels.

This week, the SDF resumed its final push before reducing pressure due to strong resistance from the extremists and the surrender of hundreds of Isil fighters and family members.

Ciyager said that there are no negotiations under way in order to secure the prisoners' release.

An SDF statement said hundreds of Isil fighters and their families surrendered on Thursday.

Some fighters have surrendered in recent weeks, but hardcore militants, including many foreigners, are still holed up in the shrinking space along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

SDF commanders have stopped speculating over when the battle may finally be over.

Already 25,000 people have left Baghouz, thousands more than were originally believed inside.

Commanders say that they do not know how many more may be left, hiding in tunnels beneath the war-scarred village.

Yesterday the situation was quiet as aircraft flew over the area controlled by Isil.

The capture of the last pocket still held by Isil fighters would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group's hold on territory in Syria and Iraq - a self-declared caliphate that at the height of the group's power in 2014 sprawled across nearly a third of Iraq and Syria.

Irish Independent

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