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Islamic State leader Baghdadi fought off coup attempt by foreign bodyguards: Report

Account was supported by some senior regional officials, who said he probably remains at large in desert
Syrian village of Baghouz, where SDF battled IS militants in January and from which witness says Baghdadi fled to desert (AFP/file photo)

Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi overcame an attempted coup in a two-day battle with his foreign bodyguards, who were then rounded up and executed, witnesses told the Guardian.

The clash reportedly took place in September in a hamlet IS held in eastern Syria, al-Keshma, near Baghouz.

“I saw him with my own eyes,” Jumah Hamdi Hamdan, 53, told the Guardian. “He was in Keshma and in September the infidels tried to capture him. The fighting was very intense, they had tunnels between houses. They were mainly Tunisians and there were many people killed.”

Hamdan said Baghdadi then moved to Baghouz, and in early January he fled to the desert.

This account was supported by some senior regional officials, who said he probably remains at large there, as the remnants of his so-called caliphate disintegrate nearby, under fierce attack by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

A senior military official from the SDF said that other members of IS’s foreign legion had joined the fight against Baghdadi, including some Algerians and Moroccans.

Hamdan said Baghdadi and his guards had been in the area for almost six months before fleeing. “He tried to keep a low profile and didn’t travel through town with them, but we all knew where they were. He used an old red Opal car.”

IS has a bounty on the head of the main plotter, Abu Muath al-Jazairi, who is believed to be a veteran foreign fighter, the Guardian said.

The SDF launched an offensive to expel IS from the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor in September.

Since then, the Kurdish-led alliance has pushed the militants back to a patch of about four square kilometres on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.

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SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Sunday afternoon said his fighters had battled their way forward against the militants, capturing 41 positions from them.

"Our forces are relying on direct combat with light weapons," he told AFP.

As many as 600 militants may still remain inside the area, most of them foreigners, Bali said.

Hundreds of civilians are also believed to be inside, he said.

Still, there may be between 14,000 and 18,000 IS militants scattered across Syria and in Iraq, including as many as 3,000 foreign militants, according to a recent report by the UN sanctions monitoring team presented to the Security Council.

A son of Baghdadi, Hudayfah al-Badri, was killed in the Syrian city of Homs, the group's news channel reported in July.

Baghdadi’s whereabouts have been mostly unknown since the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively, in 2017.

Two US security sources told Reuters recently that US government experts believe Baghdadi is still alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

Baghdadi's last message came in the form of an undated 46-minute audio recording released in September, in which he urged followers across the world to wage attacks against the West and to keep fighting in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.