|Date: Mar 11, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|U.S.-backed Syrian fighters resume attack on Daesh|
BAGHOUZ, Syria: U.S.-backed Syrian fighters resumed their offensive on the last pocket held by Daesh (ISIS) in eastern Syria Sunday, lighting the skies over the besieged village as artillery shelling and heavy gunfire rang out in the distance. Warplanes and drones circled over the besieged village of Baghouz. Explosions and fires illuminated columns of smoke over Baghouz as it came under intense artillery and rocket fire. On several occasions the village was struck with apparent cluster fire.
The operation was launched around 6 p.m. after a deadline for Daesh gunmen to surrender expired, tweeted Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. He said warplanes struck ammunition belonging to the extremists.
“The fighting is direct and intense,” Bali said.
Clashes had already broken out earlier in the day, with Daesh snipers targeting SDF positions and prompting a rattle of gunfire in response. Associated Press reporters witnessed SDF fighters take cover in a damaged building and fire back at the extremists. They packed high-caliber bullets into munitions belts and headed to the front line.
The assault was renewed days after thousands of people left the tiny village held by Daesh on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border area. Some 3,000 to 4,000 women and children are believed to still be in the pocket, along with around 500 Daesh militants, said an SDF commander on the outskirts of Baghouz, who identified himself as Ali Sheikh.
Shiekh said that to minimize casualties the SDF would advance on the ground, with the U.S.-led coalition providing air support. He said the militants have been surrendering themselves daily and that no SDF prisoners remained after the extremists freed them over the past weeks.
The battle to completely retake the pocket is likely to take three days, an SDF official, Aras Orkesh, said earlier. He said about 2,500 SDF fighters were prepared for the assault.
The SDF has been marching toward Baghouz since September. But the operation has been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians who had been holed up in the pocket, most of them families of Daesh members who have fled with the group as its once extensive territory shrank.
Over the past few weeks, more than 10,000 civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz, streaming out daily through a corridor arranged by the two sides. But since Friday, only a small group has left.
“Our forces are ready now to start and finish what is left in ISIS’s hand” Bali, the SDF spokesman, tweeted Sunday.
A U.S. senior defense official said in Washington Friday that nearly all of the 20,000 people, including women and children who left the area held by Daesh recently, are seen as Daesh followers or adherents.
In southern Syria, meanwhile, dozens of people demonstrated Sunday in the city of Deraa to protest the construction of a statue of late Syrian President Hafez Assad, days before the country marks the eighth anniversary of the country’s crisis, Syrian opposition activists said.
Deraa is where the uprising began with peaceful protests but escalated into an armed rebellion killing more than 400,000 people.