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23 Feb, 2017 19:47

Turkey-backed Syrian rebels seize center of strategic town of Al-Bab

Turkey-backed Syrian rebels seize center of strategic town of Al-Bab

Syrian rebel fighters supported by the Turkish military have seized the center all of the strategic northern Syrian town of Al-Bab from Islamic State extremists (IS, ISIS/ISIL), according to the Turkish defense minister and rebel commanders.

“Almost all of al-Bab is under control now, and a sweep operation is ongoing," Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik told journalists in the city of Izmir, as cited by the Turkish Anadolu news agency.

When the operation is over, “we will be able to say that Al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh elements,” Isik said, using an Arab acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose coalition of the Syrian armed opposition groups, launched an offensive on Al-Bab last year with the assistance of the Turkish ground troops, artillery and airstrikes.

Some armed opposition group commanders were quick to say that Al-Bab was recaptured by the rebel factions. “The center of Al-Bab is now under opposition control,” FSA Commander Ahmed al-Shahabi told the Anadolu news agency, adding that the terrorists left many mines and explosives behind.

Ahmad Othman, commander of the Sultan Mourad opposition group, told AFP that “Al-Bab is completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods."

"We had reached the city center yesterday but there was a suicide attack so we had to withdraw a little bit. And today we attacked again. I can say that 85-90 percent of the city is under control," another fighter from the Sultan Murad Brigade told Reuters by telephone, adding that some suicide bombers are still entrenched in the tunnels below the town, “every meter” of which is mined.

Field commanders from two other rebel factions in the town also told AFP that the town was successfully retaken from Islamic State. "Yesterday [on Wednesday], we captured the city center, which was an Islamic State security zone... The jihadists collapsed, and this morning around 06:00 (local time) (04:00 GMT) we completed the operation," Saif Abu Bakr, who heads the Al-Hamza rebel group, told AFP.

Another rebel field commander, Abu Jaafar, told the agency that “dozens of Islamic State fighters were killed and we evacuated more than 50 families from … Al-Bab.” He added that he expected the cleaning up operations to be wrapped up within hours.

On February 17, Turkey said that it was close to retaking Al-Bab from Islamic State militants. However, Reuters reported at the time that the terrorists were still in control of 90 percent of the town.

Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that the Turkish forces would continue their advance to Islamic State’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, once they seize Al-Bab. “The ultimate goal is to cleanse a 5,000-square-kilometer area,” Erdogan told the news conference at that time, as cited by Reuters.

Al-Bab was the last of Islamic State’s major strongholds in the northern part of Syria, although the terrorist group still controls a number of small villages and towns in the area.

The Turkish offensive on Al-Bab is part of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, which started in northern Syria on August 24, 2016. According to AFP, it has become the bloodiest battle for Turkey since the launch of the operation, as 69 Turkish soldiers were killed there.

Ankara deployed ground and air forces to Syria with the stated goal of retaking areas held by Islamic State and securing its southern borders. Turkish forces also engaged in fighting against the Kurdish YPG militia, however, with some critics claiming that suppressing Kurdish enclaves in Syria was the true goal of the operation.

In late December 2016, the Turkish military said that 1,294 Islamic State militants had been “neutralized” during the operation, in its fifth month at the time, with 1,171 of them killed. They also said Turkish forces “neutralized” 306 Kurdish YPG fighters, killing 291 of them, the ministry added.