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BEIRUT, Oct 20, (Agencies): An offensive by US-backed forces against the Islamic State group’s last redoubt in eastern Syria killed 35 jihadists on Saturday, a Britain-based war monitor said. Twenty-eight IS members were killed in air strikes by the US-led coalition around the town of Hajin, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another seven jihadists were killed in ground fighting with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who launched a coalition-backed offensive against the IS-held pocket in the Euphrates Valley last month.
Fighting has killed 414 jihadists and 227 SDF fighters in total since the assault began on Sept 10, the Observatory said. Coalition air strikes on IS targets in another part of the pocket on Thursday and Friday killed at least 41 civilians, 10 of them children, the monitor said.
IS overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a “caliphate” across the land it controlled. But the jihadist group has since lost most of its territory to various offensives in both countries. In Syria, its presence has been reduced to parts of the vast Badia desert and the Hajin pocket in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests. The Islamic State group has, meanwhile, released two women and four children among 27 surviving Druze hostages it seized during a deadly July attack on the minority community’s heartland in southern Syria. State television broadcast footage of the six arriving in the city of Sweida on Saturday, joyful at being reunited with their families but haggard after their threemonth ordeal.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said their release was the first part of a deal that would see at least 60 IS prisoners released in exchange and a $27 million ransom paid. The jihadists abducted around 30 people – mostly women and children – from Sweida province in late July during the deadliest attack on Syria’s Druze community of the seven-year civil war.
As negotiations for their release dragged on, families led a series of protests outside government offices in Sweida to demand more be done. “I cannot describe my joy,” Rasmia Abu Amar told state television after being reunited with her husband. “But it is incomplete – my son has not yet been released,” she said, her hair covered by a white headscarf.
A second woman appeared with her four children, their clothes still dirty from their long captivity and her sons with their heads shaved. Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that the six were freed on Friday night and that further hostage releases were expected “in the next few days or hours”.
He said that in return for the release of all of the hostages, the Syrian government had agreed to free 60 Islamic State group prisoners and pay a ransom of $27 million. “Nine IS women prisoners held by the regime have already been handed over to the group along with seven children,” Abdel Rahman said.
During the coordinated assaults on July 25, IS carried out suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings that left more than 250 people dead, most of them civilians. Sweida province is the heartland of the country’s Druze minority, which made up around three percent of Syria’s pre-war population – or around 700,000 people.
Followers of a secretive offshoot of Islam, the Druze are considered heretics by the Sunni extremists of IS. The jihadists executed a 19-year-old male student among the hostages in August and then a 25-year-old woman in early October. IS said a 65-year-old woman being held by the group also died from illness. Negotiations between regime ally Russia and the jihadists for the release of the hostages had stalled. But the latest round of talks appeared to have paid off – albeit it with a stiff price.
The Observatory said IS had also demanded the halting of an offensive against them in Sweida. Government forces have battled its fighters in the volcanic plateau of Tulul al-Safa in the east of the province since the July attack. Abdel Rahman said the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led alliance that controls swathes of the north and northeast with the support of a US-led coalition, “should also release some IS detainees” but he did not specify the number. There was no immediate comment from the SDF, which has been taking heavy casualties fighting IS in its last pocket of control in eastern Syria, around the Euphrates valley town of Hajin.