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Syrian Democratic Forces close in on last IS-group pocket in Syria

Rodi Said, Reuters | Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in Deir Ezzor, Syria, May 1, 2018.

US-backed Syrian forces captured 41 positions held by Islamic State group militants and destroyed their fortifications in the last tiny pocket they hold in eastern Syria amid fierce fighting, a spokesman said Sunday.

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Mustafa Bali said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces made the advances overnight and on Sunday, hours after they launched a final push to clear the area from IS group militants Saturday night.

The final battle to clear the village of Baghouz is now playing out after 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the area in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor over the past few weeks.

Bali said heavy fighting was going on inside Baghouz on Sunday, adding that an IS group counterattack was foiled early in the day. He did not say how long the battle was expected to last. US-led coalition warplanes are giving cover to advancing SDF fighters.

US President Donald Trump predicted Wednesday that the Islamic State group will by next week lose all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria.

That would mark the end of a four-year global war to end the extremist group’s territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq where the group established its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in 2014.

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US officials have said in recent weeks that the IS group has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding onto fewer than 5 square kilometres in Syria, or less than 2 square miles, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The US military has warned the group could stage a comeback if the military and counter-terrorism pressure on it is eased.

US withdrawal weeks away

The top US commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday that the US is probably just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria ordered by Trump.

US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, cautioned that the exact timing would depend on the situation in Syria.

The US military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria. Asked whether the withdrawal of America’s more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Votel said: “Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.”

“In terms of the withdrawal ... I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be,” Votel told reporters travelling with him during a trip to the Middle East.

“Moving people is easier than moving equipment and so what we’re trying to do right now is again [to] kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need.”

Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria helped trigger the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and sent US military officials scrambling to construct a withdrawal plan that preserves as many gains as possible.

Hundreds of additional troops have been sent to Syria to facilitate the withdrawal.

US officials have long estimated that the Syria pullout could take until sometime in March or April to execute fully, but have been reluctant to set an exact timeline given hard-to-predict battlefield conditions.

Votel did not speculate about when the drawdown would be completed.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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