SDF launches 'final battle' against Islamic State Syria enclave
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia has launched a "final battle" against the last remnant of the Islamic State (IS) group's so-called caliphate in northeastern Syria, an SDF official said.
The besieged IS enclave centred around the town of Baghouz on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River represents the militant group's last territorial foothold in the part of Syria where the US-backed forces have been fighting it.
"The SDF have launched the final battle to crush IS...in the village of Baghouz," the SDF said in a statement.
"After 10 days of evacuating more than 20,000 civilians... the battle was launched tonight to exterminate the last remnants of the organisation," it said.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told the AFP news agency: "The battle has started."
Earlier Bali had said the assault would not take place until civilians were evacuated. Most of the civilians are family members of IS fighters.
"There is of course a safe corridor and civilians are coming out daily, and this reduces their number in Baghouz until we can be sure the town is free of civilians," Bali said late on Friday.
However, hundreds of civilians are still thought to be inside the town.
Redur Xelil, the Kurdish-led SDF's senior public relations officer, told The Times newspaper that a number of foreign hostages, including British journalist John Cantlie and Italian priest Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, were possibly being held in the enclave.
“There may be foreign hostages among our own prisoners held by [IS],” he said.
“We have received a lot of information, sourced to [IS], about John Cantlie’s presence as a prisoner, which is very hard to verify, but also suggestions that Father Paolo and the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] employee may also be alive.”
Cantlie was abducted in Syria in November 2012 and was used by IS in numerous propaganda videos.
He had not been heard of since December 2016, until two weeks ago when Bali tweeted that Cantlie could be alive.
On Tuesday, British security minister Ben Wallace also suggested that the journalist might be alive.
Dall'Oglio, a peace activist and supporter of the opposition, disappeared in Syria in July 2013.
Earlier this week a Kurdish official indicated the hostages could become part of negotiations for IS fighters to receive safe passage from their last stronghold.
“These are ideal figures for [IS] to use in their negotiation for a safe corridor to escape,” the official said.
“But if these three were held alive then we would have expected to have received more concrete information about them. We haven’t. The information could just be a ploy by [IS] to protect themselves and live a little longer.”
The United States said on 29 January that IS was expected to lose the final chunk of territory in eastern Syria within a couple of weeks.
The SDF, backed by a US-led coalition, has pushed IS back across a large swathe of northern and eastern Syria.
After driving the militants from their Syrian headquarters at Raqqa in October 2017, the SDF advanced southwards into Deir Ezzor province, attacking the militants in territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
IS still has a territorial foothold in Syria west of the Euphrates in areas otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies.