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Islamic State militants living ‘final moments’ in Syria enclave, SDF official says

Defeat of militants would wipe out IS's territorial foothold on eastern bank of Euphrates River
Members of Syrian Democratic Forces in Hajin, eastern Syria last month (AFP/file photo)

Islamic State (IS) group militants are "living their final moments" in the last enclave they hold near the Iraqi border, where US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are attacking them, an SDF official said on Sunday.

A defeat of the militants in the enclave would wipe out IS's territorial foothold on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, Reuters said.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition said the SDF was making "great progress ... but the fight continues".

The SDF, a coalition of militias led by the Kurdish YPG, has driven IS from a swathe of northern and eastern Syria with the help of the US-led coalition over the last four years.

The area that IS still holds in Syria represents less than 1 percent of the territory it controlled at its height. The pocket is home to about 15,000 people, including IS fighters and their families. The US military estimates there are about 2,000 remaining IS fighters there, the Chicago Tribune reported.

More than 600 people were evacuated on Saturday from IS's remaining holdout in eastern Syria, a monitor said.

"More than 600 people, mainly women and children, were evacuated on 25 buses sent" by the SDF, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said several dozen militants were among those evacuated to areas held by the Kurdish-Arab alliance. 

Mustafa Bali, SDF media office head, said the SDF had stepped up attacks in the last two days and taken control of the area between the IS enclave and the Iraqi border, cutting off an escape route.

"They are living the final moments and realise that this battle is the battle to eliminate them," he added.

US President Donald Trump last month announced he would withdraw US forces from Syria, declaring they had succeeded in their mission to defeat IS and were no longer needed.

Since then, US officials have given mixed messages. On Friday, the US-led coalition said it had started the pullout, but officials later said only equipment, not troops, was going.

Colonel Sean Ryan, the coalition spokesman, said: "The SDF is making great progress and continues to liberate more territory once held by ISIS (Islamic State), but the fight continues.

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"The lasting defeat of ISIS is still the mission and they still present a very real threat to the long-term stability in this region, so it is not over yet."

The US decision has injected new uncertainty into the eight-year-old Syrian war and spurred a flurry of speculation over how the security vacuum will be filled in the swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the US forces are now stationed.

A recent report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out the US National Defense Strategy under the Trump administration had outlined a move from counterterrorism measures against non-state actors like IS to security and economic competition with states like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, Voice of America (VOA) reported.

The report, led by its director of Transnational Threats Project, Seth Jones, said that declaring victory too quickly against terrorism and then shifting too many resources away from counterterrorism would be very risky, VOA said.

While Turkey aims to pursue the Kurdish forces allied with the United States, the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian government sees a chance to recover extensive territory.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested last week that protection for Washington's Kurdish allies would be a precondition of the US withdrawal. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called his comments "a serious mistake".