Trump declares all Daesh-held territory eliminated in Syria but SDF continue fighting

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hold walkie-talkies in the village of Baghouz, Daesh's last holdout, which the US said has now been eliminated. (Reuters)
Updated 24 March 2019
0

Trump declares all Daesh-held territory eliminated in Syria but SDF continue fighting

BAGHOUZ, Syria: Daesh militants in eastern Syria still held out late on Friday, the US-backed militia besieging them said, after US President Donald Trump said the extremist group had lost its last scrap of territory.
“Heavy fighting continues around mount Baghouz right now to finish off whatever remains of Daesh,” said Mustafa Bali, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) media office on Twitter.
Trump showed a before-and-after map to reporters to demonstrate the extent of jihadist losses during his presidency. He has said several times in recent weeks that Daesh had lost all its land even though fierce battles persisted.
Two hours before Trump gave a statement declaring the group’s territorial rule over, a Reuters journalist heard two air strikes and saw smoke at Baghouz, where Daesh fighters have been waging a last stand.
Daesh’s loss of Baghouz ends its grip over populated territory in the third of Iraq and Syria it once ruled, but the group remains a threat with fighters operating in cities and remote areas elsewhere and able to mount insurgent attacks.
A US-led coalition has helped the SDF drive Daesh from swathes of northeastern Syria and down the Euphrates since 2015 with air strikes and special forces assistance.

An array of local and international forces — some of them sworn enemies of each other — have conducted different campaigns against Daesh during that period, inflicting major defeats on it in 2017 with the capture of Mosul and Raqqa.
The Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari told reporters that Daesh was not yet finished in Syria, but that it was the Damascus government backed by Russia and Iran that was genuinely battling it, not the United States.
Some Daesh fighters remain holed up in the central Syrian desert, an area entirely surrounded by the Syrian army.
“Here’s Daesh on Election Day. And here’s Daesh right now,” Trump said, using the acronym for the group, as he displayed the map with the ‘before’ portion full of red dots and the after map empty.
“You guys can have the map. Congratulations,” Trump said. “I think it’s about time.” The president has previously displayed a map illustrating the diminution of Daesh.
Although he said the “before” map showed Daesh’s presence at his election in 2016, the version given to reporters showed it was dated 2014, when the group’s territorial control was at its peak. US-backed forces in Syria and Iraq captured extensive stretches of that territory before Trump’s election.
The SDF has been battling for weeks to defeat Daesh in Baghouz on the Euphrates riverside at the Iraqi border. This week it announced it had captured a jihadist encampment that represented most of the remaining enclave.
The last small groups of jihadist fighters had been pushed onto a sliver of the riverbank and the cliffs nearby said the SDF, which holds the area at the top of the cliffs.
Bali told Reuters earlier on Friday that SDF fighters had clashed overnight with militants in more than two positions where they were refusing to surrender.
The jihadists were holed up in what appeared to be caves in a rocky shelf overlooking Baghouz and in trenches by the river, he said. “Our forces are trying to force them to surrender, but so far the clashes are continuing.”
Over the past two months, more than 60,000 people have flooded out of the dwindling pocket on the Euphrates around Baghouz, about half of them civilians including some Daesh captives, the SDF has said.
Of the rest, about 5,000 were surrendering jihadist fighters. The others were supporters or family members of the group. The fighters who refused to surrender to the end were mostly foreigners, the SDF has said.
The SDF transported most people who left Baghouz to displacement camps in northeast Syria where aid agencies have warned of dire humanitarian conditions.
The number of people inside the enclave when the assault on it began in January was unexpectedly large, adding to the difficulties at the displacement camps and repeatedly delaying a final offensive.


Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

Updated 40 min 41 sec ago
0

Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

  • The bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen
  • Govt forces detained the bird on suspicion that the attached GPS tracker was a spy device for Houthi militants

SANAA: Griffon vulture Nelson crossed into war-torn Yemen in search of food but ended up in the hands of Yemeni fighters — and temporarily in jail for suspected espionage.
The sand-colored bird came down in the country’s third city of Taiz, an unusual move for a young vulture that can soar for long distances across continents in search of food and moderate weather.
Nelson, approximately two years old, embarked on his journey in September 2018 from Bulgaria, where his wing was tagged and equipped with a satellite transmitter by the Fund for Wild Fauna and Flora (FWFF).
But he seems to have lost his way, eventually coming down into Taiz — under siege by Houthi rebels but controlled by pro-government forces, who mistook Nelson’s satellite transmitter for an espionage device and detained the bird.
Forces loyal to the government believed that the GPS tracker attached to the bird may have been a spy device for the rebels.
Hisham Al-Hoot, who represents the FWFF in Yemen, traveled from the rebel-held capital Sanaa to Taiz to plead with local officials to release the helpless animal.
“It took about 12 days to get the bird,” he told AFP.
“The Bulgarian foreign ministry reached out to the Yemeni ambassador, who in turn contacted local officials (in Taiz) and told them to immediately give the organization the vulture.”
Hoot said that the bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen — where the FWFF lost track of the bird.
Nelson was MIA until April 5, when the conservation group received hundreds of messages from Yemenis concerned about the creatures’ welfare.
Today, the locally-famous vulture is being properly fed and getting stronger every day.
“When we first took him, he was in very bad condition,” said Hoot, adding that the bird was underweight.
Smiling, he puts on gloves and carefully handles the majestic creature — blowing it a kiss.
Hoot said the bird will be released in two months when he believed Nelson will have regained his full strength and his wing — broken somewhere during his journey — will have healed.
“We thought at first it would take six months for him to heal, but now we don’t think it will be more than two months,” he said.
Hoot said that Nelson was not able to find any source of sustenance in Yemen.
“They can eat carcasses of dead animals, but now there is no more with the current situation of war.
“This is what forced him to come down and stopped him from completing his journey.”
The four-year conflict in Yemen has unleashed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with millions facing famine.
The war escalated in March 2015 when a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened to bolster the efforts of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Since then, at least 10,000 people — most of them civilians — have been killed and more than 60,000 wounded, according to the World Health Organization. Other rights groups estimate the toll could be much higher.