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US-backed fighters launch final push to defeat IS in Syria

Delil Souleiman, AFP | A burnt car sits ruined after battles between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the front line village of Baghouz in the countryside of the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor province.

US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces said Saturday they have launched a final push to defeat the Islamic State group in the last tiny pocket the extremists hold in eastern Syria.

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Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted that the offensive began Saturday after more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the IS-held area in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. An SDF statement said the offensive was focused on the village of Baghouz.

The SDF, backed by US air power, has driven IS from large swaths of territory it once controlled in northern and eastern Syria, confining the extremists to a small pocket of land near the border with Iraq.

Scores of IS fighters are now besieged in a small area consisting of two villages, or less than once percent of the self-styled caliphate that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, thousands of civilians, including families of IS fighters, left the area controlled by the extremists.

"The decisive battle began tonight to finish what remains of Daesh terrorists," Bali said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to IS.

US President Donald Trump predicted Wednesday that IS will have lost all of its territory by next week.

"It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate," Trump told representatives of a 79-member, US-led coalition fighting IS.

US officials have said in recent weeks that IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to fewer than 5 square kilometers in Syria, or less than 2 square miles, in the villages of the Middle Euphrates River Valley, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that since the SDF began its offensive against IS in the area on Sept. 10, some 1,279 IS gunmen and 678 SDF fighters have been killed. It said 401 civilians, including 144 children and teenagers, have been killed since then.

Earlier Saturday, IS militants attacked SDF fighters near an oil field in the country's east, triggering airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

The Observatory said 12 IS gunmen attacked the SDF and clashed with them for several hours until most of the attackers were killed early Saturday. It said 10 attackers were killed, while two managed to flee.

Other activist collectives, including the Step news agency, reported the attack, saying some of the attackers used motorcycles rigged with explosives.

The fighting was concentrated near al-Omar field, Syria's largest.

(AP)

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