U.S.-backed fighters clear area around last Islamic State Syria pocket: SDF official

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FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) conducted clearing operations on Wednesday after taking most of the last Islamic State pocket in east Syria, an official with the U.S.-backed militia said.

Fighters searched the pocket at Baghouz near the Iraqi border for hidden jihadists, tunnels and landmines, but there was calm and no clashes, the SDF official said.

Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz would end its territorial control over the third of Syria and Iraq it held in 2014 as it sought to carve out a huge caliphate in the region.

While it would represent a significant milestone in Syria’s eight-year-old war and in the battle against Islamic State, the jihadist group remains a threat.

Some of the group’s fighters are still holed up in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraqi cities to wage an insurgent campaign to destabilize the government.

On Tuesday, the SDF said they had driven the remaining Islamic State fighters in Baghouz from a makeshift encampment that had represented most of its remaining territory.

Remaining diehard fighters had been pushed to the bank of the Euphrates, and on Tuesday night they continued clashing with the SDF, a spokesman for the militia said.

Reporting by Rodi Said in Baghouz, writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut, Editing by Mike Collett-White, William Maclean

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