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Syria opposition announce capture of Al-Bab from Daesh

BEIRUT: Turkish-backed Syrian opposition announced on Thursday they had taken full control of Al-Bab from the Daesh group, marking a key defeat for the jihadists after weeks of heavy fighting.
The town of Al-Bab, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Turkish border, was the last Daesh stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.
“We are announcing Al-Bab completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods,” said Ahmad Othman, a opposition commander.
“After hours of fighting, we chased out the last remaining Daesh rank and file that were collapsing after the fierce shelling of their positions,” he added.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported that the opposition were now in control of central Al-Bab.
It said fighters had surrounded the town to “break” Daesh’s will but had held off on storming the center “with the aim of preventing civilian casualties.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights however said Daesh fighters were still present in parts of the town and the opposition were in control of less than half of it.
The opposition launched an offensive to capture Al-Bab last year with the support of Turkish ground troops, artillery and air strikes.
Al-Bab was Daesh’s last remaining stronghold in Aleppo province, after a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters seized the town of Manbij in August.
The jihadist group still controls a scattering of smaller villages and towns in the province.
Field commanders from two other opposition factions in the town confirmed the capture of Al-Bab to AFP.
“Yesterday (Wednesday), we captured the city center, which was Daesh’s security zone… The jihadists collapsed, and this morning around 6 am (0400 GMT) we completed the operation,” said Saif Abu Bakr, who heads the Al-Hamza opposition group.
Abu Jaafar, another opposition field commander, said he expected clearing up operations would be wrapped up within hours.
“Dozens of IS fighters were killed and we evacuated more than 50 families from inside Al-Bab,” Abu Jaafar said.
Turkey sent troops into Syria in August last year in an operation it said targeted not only Daesh but also US-backed Kurdish fighters whom it regards as terrorists.
The battle for Al-Bab has been the bloodiest of the campaign with at least 69 Turkish soldiers killed there.
“Al-Bab is important, insofar as its taking from Daesh will deprive the group of a tax base and an area where it was able to congregate and plot attacks against Syrians and the west,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council.
“For Turkey, the mission, as was defined back in 2016, is now complete: Turkish forces have forced Daesh from the border and cut the overland route between the two Kurdish cantons,” he told AFP.
Syria’s Kurds have managed autonomous administrations in swathes of the country’s north since 2012, and Al-Bab falls between the “cantons” of Kobani and Afrin.
“However, Turkey will now have to grapple with the questions of prolonged occupation of a foreign country and help to oversee the transition to civilian rule, a tall task of any foreign military,” Stein added.
The opposition victory comes as a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks between Syria’s government and opposition figures opens Thursday in Geneva.