US-backed SDF make 'modest advances' on final ISIL holdout

Kurdish-led forces move slowly into eastern Syrian village amid ISIL sniper fire, landmines, SDF commander says.

    US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have made "modest advances" after resuming a major push against ISIL's final holdout in eastern Syria, according to a commander of the Kurdish-led group.

    Amid sniper fire, suicide attacks and land minesSDF fighters moved slowly on Monday towards a tent encampment in Baghouz, in Deir Az Zor province, senior commander Adnan Afrin told the Reuters news agency.

    The reported advance, which is backed by US-led coalition air raids, came hours after the restart of the offensive on the ISIL-held village, situated on the bank of the Euphrates River near Syria's border with Iraq.

    Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesperson, said in a post on Twitter that "dozens" of ISIL fighters were killed during battles on Monday.

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    One SDF fighter was also killed and four others were wounded during the fighting, which saw four ISIL members commit suicide attacks using "explosive belts" without causing any casualties, Bali added.

    The ongoing offensive was launched after an earlier SDF-imposed deadline for ISIL fighters to surrender expired.

    It is unclear how many ISIL fighters are still holed-up in the village. Several thousand civilians are also estimated to be in the area.

    A senior US defence official told The Associated Press news agency last week that it would not be a surprise, based on current conditions, if it took another couple of weeks to finish "mopping up" the ISIL enclave.

    Fall of the 'caliphate'

    Retaking Baghouz would mark a milestone in the campaign against the armed group, which once controlled almost one-third of Iraq and Syria under its self-declared "caliphate" after suddenly expanding in 2014.

    The SDF have been poised to advance into the village for weeks but have repeatedly held back to allow for the evacuation of thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of ISIL fighters, to nearby displacement camps.

    Bali said on Sunday no further civilians had emerged from the enclave since Saturday and the SDF had not observed any more civilians in the area, prompting the decision to attack.

    Tens of thousands of people have streamed out of the shrinking territory held by the ISIL in recent months, with most of those fleeing Baghouz headed to the al-Hol camp, in northeastern Syria.

    The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which is working in the camp, warned last week it had reached "breaking point" due to the influx of more than 55,000 people since the beginning of December.

    "There is now an urgent need for thousands more family tents to get to al-Hol to help shelter the latest arrivals, as well as increased funding to support the health crisis unfolding at the camp," Misty Buswell, the IRC's Middle East advocacy director, said in a statement. 

    On Monday, the United Nations children's agency UNICEF said there were about 3,000 children from 43 countries living in al-Hol, along with many more Syrian and Iraqi children, in "extremely dire conditions".

    "Since January 1, 2019, every single day, a child has died fleeing the fight against ISIS [ISIL]," UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Geert Cappelaere, told reporters at a press conference in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies