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Kurdish-led forces retake IS group hub in east Syria

Delil Souleiman, AFP | Syrian Kurdish members of the People's Protection Units (YPG) attend the funeral of a slain Kurdish commander in the northeastern city of Qamishli on December 6, 2018.

Kurdish-led and US-backed forces seized the town of Hajin from Islamic State group on Friday, a milestone in a massive and costly operation to drive the jihadists out of eastern Syria.

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Syrian Democratic Forces had secured Hajin, which is the last big town held by Islamic State group in its remaining pocket of territory east of the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq.

"After a week of heavy fighting and air strikes, the SDF were able to kick IS group out of Hajin," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring organisation, said.

The operation was completed at dawn, he said, a day after SDF forces fanned out across the large village in the Euphrates valley.

On Thursday, the last IS fighters were confined to a network of tunnels and the edges of Hajin.

SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Kobani told Reuters on Thursday that at least 5,000 Islamic State group fighters remain holed up in the pocket of territory including Hajin and that they had decided to fight to the death.

This includes some 2,000 foreign fighters, mostly Arabs and Europeans, along with their families.

IS fighters pulled back to positions east of Hajin Friday and to Sousa and Al-Shaafa, the other two main villages in their shrinking Euphrates valley enclave.

As recently as Thursday, the group posted pictures of fighting in Hajin on its social media accounts.

High death toll

According to Abdel Rahman, a total of 17,000 fighters from the Kurdish-Arab SDF alliance are involved in the operation to flush the IS group out of its last bastion.

The operation was launched on September 10 and has taken a heavy toll, according to figures collected by the Observatory, which has a vast network of sources on the ground.

At least 900 jihadists and 500 SDF fighters were killed in the fighting, the monitoring group said.

According to Abdel Rahman, more than 320 civilians were also killed, many of them in air strikes by the US-led coalition.

Thousands more civilians who had remained, voluntarily or not, in the Hajin area have fled their homes since the start of the offensive three months ago.

US President Donald Trump this week predicted the jihadist group would be fully defeated within a month.

"We've done a very, very major job on ISIS," he said on Tuesday, using another acronym for IS.

"There are very few of them left in that area of the world. And within another 30 days, there won't be any of them left," he vowed.

Western and other officials have repeatedly announced deadlines for a final victory over IS but the group is proving resilient.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intensified his criticism of US support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters, saying Friday that Turkey would clear the key northern town of Manbij. Over the summer, the two NATO allies had struck a "road map" for Manbij to remove YPG, which Turkey considers a terror organisation linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

Erdogan argued the United States has not kept its promises to push YPG east of the Euphrates River.

"If you don't take them out, we will also enter Manbij," he said. American troops are stationed in Manbij, which was cleared of the IS group in 2016, and Washington and Ankara recently started joint patrols around the town.

Erdogan's threat comes days after he announced his military would launch a new cross-border operation into Syria "within a few days" to fight YPG east of the Euphrates.

On Thursday, a Turkish soldier was killed in the northwestern town of Afrin after an attack from nearby Tel Rifat. The Turkish military and allied Syrian opposition fighters took the town from the YPG earlier this year.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS, AP)

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