IS zealots face final assault as coalition forces close

Published by The Mail on Sunday (3rd March, 2019)

Thick black smoke rose over the Syrian village of Baghouz yesterday as Western-backed forces advanced on two fronts in an attack they vowed would prove the final assault on Islamic State fighters.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began the assault on Friday night after a pause in fighting to allow thousands of civilians to flee.

Fighters were backed by helicopters and drones as they closed in on the terror group’s last bastion close to the Iraq border.

Desperate IS fighters, many of them foreigners, used booby- traps in a last-ditch attempt to stop the crushing of their self-declared caliphate.

Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, tweeted yesterday morning that heavy clashes were taking place as its forces advanced. ‘We expect it to be over soon,’ he said.

One SDF commander told The Mail on Sunday there were about 300 IS fighters – including some of its most hardened – still in the besieged area on the banks of the Euphrates river.

‘They are resisting very strongly,’ he said. ‘It is non-stop fighting. Daesh [IS] is using infrared homing devices and mortars. We are making progress but the battle is very fierce and we are not yet inside Baghouz.’

He said his forces held a strong position on a hill by the town, but IS fighters still occupied ‘six or seven’ key points and were relying on a network of ‘fighting tunnels’ burrowed beneath the battlefield.

The SDF fear that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have escaped through one of the tunnels to Iraq.

Local sources claimed Western special forces were using rapid-hardening foam to trap those hiding in caves and tunnels.

A spokesman for the coalition, which supports the Kurdish-led SDF, said it was too early to assess progress since ‘it is a complicated situation with many variables’.

The fall of IS has been expected for weeks, but jihadis slowed the assault by using their network of tunnels and forcing civilians to become human shields.

Many of the jihadis’ tents appeared flattened and destroyed. Those escaping the enclave said food and medical supplies had dwindled, with some relying on a diet of ‘IS bread’ – leaves baked with animal feed. Others said they had to eat animal droppings and sticks to survive.

Fighters captured over recent days include jihadis from France, Spain, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan and Tunisia. 

One 27-year-old Indonesian widow said she would have liked to have stayed but conditions were impossible. ‘I have no money, no food for my baby, no medicine, so I must go,’ she said.

Twelve British jihadi brides held in camp 

At least 12 British female jihadis with 20 children between them are being held at Roj camp in northern Syria, according to UK sources.

They include Reema Iqbal, an East London mother-of-two who spent four years living under IS and married a man who bragged of slaughtering ‘infidels’ like sheep. She went to Syria with her two university-educated sisters.

Others there include a middle-class recruit in her 40s whose husband was killed just two weeks after they arrived, and a woman who lawyers believe was trafficked into the so-called caliphate from Turkey by her Irish-born husband. 

They were joined last week by Shamima Begum, the 19-year-old former East London schoolgirl, who was moved from the al-Hol camp with her week-old son Jerah and other foreign jihadi brides.

Kurdish security sources denied claims from Begum’s lawyer that this was due to safety fears after reports that IS hardliners at al-Hol, angered by her high profile and uncovered face in interviews with the media, had put a bounty on her head.

Officials insisted that Begum was moved to make space for a surge in IS fighters and their families pouring into al-Hol from the terror group’s last holdout in Baghouz.

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