Turkey said yesterday fewer than 100 militants were still holed up in the flashpoint Islamic-State Syrian town of Al-Bab, as rebel commanders predicted its capture was imminent.
The fight for Al-Bab has seen the bloodiest clashes of Ankara’s half-year campaign inside the conflict-torn country and its capture would be one of the most significant reverses for Islamic State in Syria.
Speaking to NTV television, Defence Minister Fikri Isik said half of the town of Al-Bab was in the hands of Turkish troops and allied pro-Ankara Syrian rebels, after the government repeatedly said it was “largely under control”.
“We estimate there are less than 100” IS fighters left in Al-Bab, Isik told NTV. “But they are very dangerous people. Some are snipers, some are potential suicide bombers.”
He said the operation to surround Al-Bab was “over” with troops now moving from district-to-district to “clean up” the town.
“Until this clean-up inside is completed, it’s impossible to say that our work is over,” he added.
Rebel commanders on the ground said reporters in Syria their forces were facing fierce resistance, with IS using snipers and laying roadside bombs.
“We control more than 60% of Al-Bab and we will continue until all the town is captured,” Saif Abu Bakr, commander of the Al-Hamza rebel group said.”We will win the battle at any cost... in the next days, God willing.”
He could not say how many militants were left inside Al-Bab but said they were “in a state of collapse”.
Mohamed al-Jassem, of the rebel group Jabha Shamiya, added: “We have taken over most of the neighbourhoods of Al-Bab, thank God, and I do not think that taking over the entire town will take us long.”
An AFP TV reporter saw the pro-Ankara rebels, protected with just light flak jackets, combing through the ruins on the outskirts of the city on foot and in pick-ups, sometimes opening fire towards the militants.
But Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in Beirut that Turkish troops and allied rebels controlled only 25% of
Al-Bab, with some 700 militants still fighting there.
Since launching its unprecedented incursion into Syria in August, Turkey has been focusing on Al-Bab as the last bastion of IS extremists in Aleppo province.
But the battle for the town has been fierce, with most of the 69 Turkish soldiers killed in the Syria campaign dying there.
The resident and regional UN humanitarian co-ordinators for Syria said in a joint statement that the United Nations was “deeply concerned” over the fate of some 5,000 civilians trapped in and around Al-Bab.
“The conflict in Al-Bab has put civilians, many of whom are women and children, in grave jeopardy,” said Kevin Kennedy, regional co-ordinator for the Syria crisis. The statement expressed concern over the possibility of street fighting inside Al-Bab as the battle reaches an endgame “which could place civilians in the area at heightened risk of death and injury.”
Turkey has repeatedly said after Al-Bab it wants to move onto the de-facto militant capital of Raqa to the west and has expressed enthusiasm for a joint operation with partners including the United States to capture the city.
Turkish chief of staff Hulusi Akar held talks with his US counterpart Joseph Dunford last week while US Senator John McCain discussed Raqa with on Monday with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.
“We have the opportunity, we have the power to do this,” presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters. But Turkey is insistent that any Raqa operation must not involve Kurdish militia, who until now have been the main allies of the United States on the ground in the fight against IS.
Isik said the new administration of US President Donald Trump “was listening more attentively” to Turkey than the previous team of his predecessor Barack Obama on this.
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