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Car bombing kills 20 near anti-IS base in Syria

Updated February 22, 2019

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A spokesman for the SDF says the attack killed mostly oil workers, as well as fighters in Shheel close to an oil field.— AFP/File
A spokesman for the SDF says the attack killed mostly oil workers, as well as fighters in Shheel close to an oil field.— AFP/File

BEIRUT: A car bomb on Thursday killed oil workers and fighters from a US-backed force battling the militant Islamic State group in east Syria, the Kurdish-led alliance said, with a monitor putting the death toll at 20.

A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the attack killed mostly oil workers, as well as fighters in the village of Shheel close to an oil field acting as a base for the anti-IS force.

Jihadist “cells are trying to stop our progress,” Adnan Afrin said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 oil workers and six conscripts died after “the car bomb was detonated remotely”.

The SDF fighters were escorting the workers in vehicles from the Omar oil field, the monitor said.

The SDF are fighting to expel the jihadists from the last shred of their “caliphate” in the village of Baghouz, some 100 km south along the Euphrates river.

The SDF took control of the Omar oil field in October 2017, and have turned it into their main base in the area.

IS seized large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” there, but have since lost all but the Baghouz holdout to various offensives.

Syria forces try to free last civilians from IS holdout

US-backed Syrian forces tried on Thursday to negotiate the release of civilians still trapped in the IS group’s last redoubt, as a car bombing killed 20 people near their main base.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are working towards evacuating civilians remaining in the holdout in east Syria, so they can retake the last scrap of the dying IS “caliphate” whether through an assault or a surrender deal.

The jihadists overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but several offensives have retaken all but half a square kilometre (a fifth of a square mile) of the territory in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting IS said international forces “continue to support the SDF as they negotiate having innocent civilians released” and their captured fighters returned.

As the SDF pressed the last IS diehards a car bomb killed 14 oil workers and six of the Kurdish-led alliance’s conscripts near the Omar oil field which is uses as its main base in the region, the US-backed group and a monitor said.

SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said the blast in the village of Shheel, some 100 kilometres north of Baghouz, was another example of IS cells attacking its fighters behind the front line.

A day after hundreds of people were evacuated from the last IS remnant, more than 50 trucks on Thursday returned near empty from Baghouz to SDF territory, a correspondent said.

“We couldn’t enter Baghouz,” said a man who had accompanied the convoy.

“We got to an SDF point and we found around 15 people — women and children including a French woman and an Egyptian woman. We took them,” he said.

“The fighters asked us to go back tomorrow at 8 am.”

Thousands of people have escaped IS territory in recent weeks, but the flow slowed to a trickle at the weekend, before Wednesday’s first batch of evacuees.

Paul Bradley, from the Free Burma Rangers volunteer group, said people fleeing painted a grim picture of life inside.

“They showed us this bread that’s basically mashed up wheat with water burnt on both sides, $16 a kilo,” he said.

SDF spokesman Afrin said most of those trucked out on Wednesday were civilians, but they also included IS fighters.

On Thursday, a reporter saw hundreds of people waiting in a screening area where the SDF have been questioning new arrivals in recent weeks, to separate out suspected jihadists from the civilians.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said on Wednesday that negotiations were being held “for the surrender of the last IS fighters”.

It said there were “reports of a deal” but the details were unclear.

At the height of its rule, IS imposed its brutal ideology on a territory roughly the size of the United Kingdom, attracting thousands of supporters from abroad.

But the jihadists have since lost almost all their territory, and hundreds of foreigners suspected of being IS fighters, as well as related women and children, are being held by the SDF. Other foreign members have been killed.

A top French jihadist, who voiced an audio recording claiming responsibility for the November 2015 attacks in Paris, was killed in an overnight air strike, security sources said on Thursday.

Fabien Clain, who is believed to have gone to Syria in March 2015, was killed in Baghouz, they said.

Across the border, security officials in Iraq said the SDF handed over 130 Iraqi jihadists to Baghdad on Thursday, but SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali denied the claim.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2019