SDF locked in pitched battles with 'diehard' ISIS fighters in east Syria

ISIS is confined to a small patch of land near the Iraqi border

TOPSHOT - Turkish-backed Syrian fighters take up an armed position with sandbags along the frontline with SDF forces near the village of Kiridiyah, about 30 kilometres west of the northern town of Manbij, on January 15, 2019.  / AFP / Bakr ALKASEM
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Fierce clashes erupted between 'diehard' ISIS fighters and US-backed forces in eastern Syria on Thursday, as part of a final push to drive militants from their last sliver of territory in the country, activists said.

ISIS is now confined to small patches of land surrounding the village of Al Baghouz, which came under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Wednesday after pitched battles with militants.

Militants are also scattered across farmlands and orchards on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that landmines planted by ISIS are hampering attempts by the SDF to advance in areas around Al Baghouz.

Militants holed-up in the region have “refused to surrender” and have chosen instead to “fight until death,” the war monitor said.

The US-led coalition, which usually backs SDF forces with airstrikes, deployed more than 15 vehicles to frontlines, the Observatory said. British special forces and American troops are believed to be among those driving the vehicles, at least two of which have been mounted with artillery, according the war monitor.

Activists believe a declaration of victory is imminent. The US coalition, however, said it would not issue a timetable. 
Kurdish-led forces, backed by air strikes of the US-led coalition, have been battling since September to expel militants from their enclave in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
The battles have killed more than 1,000 ISIS militants and more than 600 SDF fighters.
The fighting has also displaced thousands of civilians, many of whom are now languishing in informal settlements in Kurdish-held parts of eastern Syria.
The Observatory said more than 5,000 people, including hundreds of militants, had fled ISIS territory on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River since Monday.
Battles against ISIS in eastern Syria gained pace after US President Donald Trump last month announced he would withdraw US forces from the country.

The coalition also stepped up air strikes against militants after ISIS attacked American personnel in the northern Syrian city of Manbij last week.

The suicide bombing killed four American personnel and 15 other people. The US losses were the biggest since Washington entered the conflict in 2014.

On Monday, ISIS targeted a US army convoy in the town of Al Shadadeh in northeast Syria. The US-led coalition said that no American troops were killed in the car bombing.

Meanwhile in northern Syria, Kurdish forces unearthed two mass graves containing hundreds of unidentified bodies near the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, the Observatory said.
The graves contain up to 1,000 bodies, the war monitor estimates. It was not immediately clear if they were civilians or fighters.

The northern Syrian city was once the de facto capital of ISIS in Syria and was liberated in a campaign that ended more than two years ago, but rescuers and early recovery teams continue to find mass graves scattered around the city.

In Damascus, a car bomb targeted a district located near the Russian embassy, Syrian state media reported. It is the second such attack on the Syrian capital in less than a week.

State-run Sana said an explosive-rigged vehicle was responsible for the blast that struck the Al Adawi district.

Sana said no casualties have been reported.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Thursday’s blast comes two days after a car bomb struck the coastal city of Latakia, another stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The explosion killed one person.

It also comes less than a week after Syrian state media reported a terrorist attack on the capital. It said that the blast did not cause any casualties.