BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — Besieged by U.S.-backed forces in their last foothold in Syria, Islamic State militants are calling on supporters across the world to stage attacks in their defense, according to a newly released audio recording.
The recording, purportedly from IS, came as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces continued to face stiff resistance Tuesday from IS gunmen. The U.S.-backed fighters tried to push deeper into the village of Baghouz on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
Despite the fighting, SDF officials said scores of fighters have surrendered.
The brief, minute-and-a half recording, released by IS supporters on social media and reported by the SITE Intelligence Group late Monday said men, women and children in Baghouz are being subjected to a “holocaust by the Crusaders,” which is militant jargon for the U.S.-led coalition against IS.
In the audio, an unidentified IS militant calls on Muslim “brothers, in Europe and in the whole world” to “rise against the Crusaders and … take revenge for your religion.” As the man speaks, cracks of gunfire can be heard in the background, apparently meant to suggest that he is in Baghouz.
“Crusaders’ warplanes” and “Kurdish atheists” are attacking his people, the man says. The recording’s authenticity couldn’t be independently verified.
U.S.-backed forces resumed their offensive against the Islamic State group on Sunday night after thousands of civilians and hundreds of fighters left the last sliver held by the extremists. Since then, 38 militants and three SDF fighters have been killed, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.
The capture of Baghouz would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to defeat IS’s so-called “caliphate,” which once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq.
Bali said Tuesday that some IS fighters and their families emerged from the besieged area without saying how many. This is the first batch of people to leave Baghouz since the SDF began an offensive over the weekend. Another official, Adnan Afrin, said a large number of fighters were among the evacuees.
Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said some 350 people had left the IS-held area Tuesday, including 120 IS fighters. The group said those who left included citizens of Lebanon and Morocco.
On the ground, commanders say they have been hindered by IS sniper fire but are relying more on airstrikes and heavy weaponry, rather than ground forces, to push IS to surrender.
Argish al-Deiri, an SDF commander in Baghouz who identified himself by his nom de guerre, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his men advanced overnight and secured some positions on the edge of a tent settlement where IS militants are making their last stand.
“We entered the camp, then stopped,” he said. “There was resistance, and we withdrew. The planes struck the ammunition depot,” setting off explosions that halted the push.
Al-Deiri said IS militants were fighting back with heavy weapons, rifles and sniper fire, forcing SDF fighters to slow their advance rather than advancing quickly so that “you don’t lose your men.”
He said he hoped the IS fighters will surrender in the coming “few days.”
Youssef reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
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