BEIRUT: U.S.-backed fighters were advancing Monday against Daesh (ISIS) hiding out in a small sliver of desert in eastern Syria, the force and an activist group said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has been bearing down on the small Daesh-held zone along the Euphrates River since May 1.
SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told AFP Monday the forces were securing the village of Baghuz, captured after overnight clashes and the first to be seized since the operation began.
“It is now being cleared of anything left behind by Daesh, including mines, and we are looking for any Daesh members hiding in tunnels or other locations,” Gabriel said.
“We will set up defensive positions so that we can completely surround Daesh along the Euphrates River,” he said.
Baghuz lies on the river’s eastern bank, a few hundred meters from the Iraqi border.
Gabriel said the operation was carried out in coordination with Iraqi government forces and the U.S.-led coalition.
The SDF has already driven Daesh out of large parts of northern and eastern Syria, including the onetime militant capital of Raqqa, with support from the coalition’s airstrikes, weapons and special forces advisers.
At the beginning of May, the SDF announced that it would pursue Daesh in its final desert holdout in east Syria between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border.
It has already cleared around 64 square kilometers since then, the coalition said on social media.
The coalition published images of Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, shaking hands with SDF commanders.
“Coalition and U.S. Generals meet our SDF partners to gain a better understanding of the fight against Daesh in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” it wrote.
After several months of relatively few airstrikes in Syria, it ramped up its bombing raids at the beginning of this month to give support to the SDF’s ground operations.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group, confirmed that the SDF had captured Baghuz following fierce clashes overnight.
It said 18 Daesh fighters were also killed in coalition strikes and fighting in Al-Bahra, a village further north along the river.
The observatory said Daesh still controlled three main villages in the area: Hajin, Sousa and Al-Shaafa.
Separately, the Iraqi air force carried out a strike on a Daesh position inside Syria, state television reported Monday citing a military statement.
The strike, ordered by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, destroyed a building used as a command and logistics support center by the group, the statement said.
The Iraqi air force has already carried out several airstrikes against Daesh in Syria since last year, with the approval of the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group.
Abadi last month said he would “take all necessary measures if they threaten the security of Iraq,” referring to the militants who just three years ago overran a third of Iraq.
The prime minister declared final victory over the extremist Islamist group in December but it still poses a threat from pockets along the border with Syria and has continued to carry out ambushes, assassinations and bombings across Iraq.
Iraq has good relations with Iran and Russia, Assad’s main backers in the 7-year-old Syrian civil war, while also enjoying strong support from the U.S.-led coalition fighting Daesh.