Amman/Beirut: Hundreds of Daesh militants withdrew from the heart of a rugged area in southeastern Syria after holding up for over three months against a major campaign by the Syrian army and its allies to crush them, rebels and residents said on Sunday.
They said militants dug into the Tulul al Safa heights, east of Sweida province, had begun their retreat in the last few days as Syrian army tanks backed by heavy air strikes approached their last hideout.
Local leaders in Sweida city said the army and militias had suffered heavy losses in weeks of attempts to advance deep into the volcanic plateau area where the rugged terrain had long made it an ideal refuge for fugitives and insurgents.
Syrian state media, quoting army sources, said they had closed in on Tulul al Safa and pro-government websites said the army had finally raised the national flag near the tomb of an revered holy figure close to the site.
The militant group, which lost most of its territory in Syria last year, rampaged through Sweida city in July from the desert areas east of the city, killing more than 200 people and detonating suicide vests.
The militants are believed to have fled to other areas to the west, including the towns of al Hasa and al Rahba, with many also melting into the vast sparsely populated eastern desert region, a former rebel source familiar with the area said.
Further northeast, the US-led coalition was waging air strikes against the town of Hajin, east of the Euphrates River, in the last remaining Daesh-held pocket in Syria near the border with Iraq.
Meanwhile, clashes on Sunday between Turkish-backed rebel factions vying for influence in the northern Syrian town of Afrin left 11 fighters dead, a war monitor said.
Turkish troops and allied rebel groups seized the Afrin region from Kurdish forces in March after a two-month air and ground offensive.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting in several districts “had left 11 dead and 27 wounded” after erupting on Saturday.
Turkish troops stationed in the town imposed a curfew on civilians from Saturday evening in a bid to avoid bloodshed, the Observatory said.
The clashes pitched the majority of the pro-Ankara rebels against a group of some 200 fighters who were accused of “disobeying” Turkish forces and “committing abuses”, the monitor said.
The main alliance of Turkish-backed rebels in Afrin wrote on Twitter that current operations were aimed at “pursuing outlaw gangs”.
Since Turkish troops and pro-Ankara Arab rebels captured the town from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the United Nations and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have documented widespread abuses.
Half of the enclave’s 320,000 residents fled, according to a report by the UN Commission of Inquiry, and most are unable to return.