IS camp captured?


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This frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows Islamic State fighters firing their weapons during clashes with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, in Baghouz, the Islamic State group's last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)

This frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows Islamic State fighters firing their weapons during clashes with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, in Baghouz, the Islamic State group's last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)


This frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows IS fighters walking as they hold the group's flag inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group's last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)


This frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows smoke rising as an IS fighter walking inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group's last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the IS announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)


US-backed force says it captured IS camp in Syria

By PHILIP ISSA

Associated Press

Tuesday, March 19

BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian forces took control Tuesday of an encampment held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, after dozens of militants surrendered overnight, a spokesman said. A group of suspects involved in a January bombing that killed four Americans in northern Syria were among militants captured by the Kurdish-led forces.

The taking of the IS encampment was a major advance but not the final defeat of the group in Baghouz, the last village held by the extremists where they have been holding out for weeks under siege, according to Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

An unknown number of militants still clung to a tiny sliver of land about 200 meters by 200 meters trapped between the Euphrates River and the encampment now held by the SDF, officials in the force said.

The militants have been putting up a desperate fight, their notorious propaganda machine working even on the brink of collapse. On Monday, IS issued a video showing its militants furiously defending the encampment, a junkyard of wrecked cards, motorcycles and tents. In the footage. They shoot nonstop with AK-47s and M-16s from behind trucks, vehicles and sand berms.

A group of children could be seen at one point amid the fighting.

“My Muslim brothers everywhere, we did our best, the rest is up to God,” a fighter said to the backdrop of black smoke rising from behind him.

The complete fall of Baghouz would mark the end of the Islamic State group’s self-declared territorial “caliphate,” which at its height stretched across much of Syria and Iraq. For the past four years, U.S.-led forces have waged a destructive campaign to tear down the “caliphate.” But even after Baghouz’s fall, IS maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells that threaten a continuing insurgency.

The battle for Baghouz has dragged on for weeks — and the encampment has proven a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.

The siege has also been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghouz, most of them families of IS members. Over past weeks they have been flowing out and the sheer number who emerged — nearly 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials — took the Kurdish-led SDF by surprise.

In the last two weeks, many IS militants appeared to be among those evacuating. But SDF commanders have stopped speculating when the battle may finally be over. Commanders say they don’t know how many more may still be left, hiding in tunnels beneath the war-scarred village.

In the seizure Tuesday of the encampment, hundreds of wounded and sick militants were captured and have been evacuated to nearby military hospitals for treatment, Bali, the SDF spokesman, said in a Twitter post. Still, he cautioned, “this is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight.”

There were conflicting reports from SDF commanders on the ground about the extent of the IS surrender.

Commander Rustam Hasake told The Associated Press that SDF forces advanced on four fronts Monday night and were inside the camp when the last IS fighters surrendered at dawn. He said the last fighters were pushed out of the camp and were now in an open patch of land by the Euphrates River and were being processed and detained. It was not clear how many they were.

Another commander, however, said some IS militants continue to hold a tiny area in an open patch of land in the village, outside the encampment.

AP journalists in Baghouz reported sporadic gunfire echoing in Baghouz and jets circling overhead. At a command post in Baghouz, a Humvee pulled up and unloaded weapons captured from IS on Tuesday, including sniper and hunting rifles, pump action shot guns and grenades and ammunition.

Five trucks hauling 10 trailers full of people were seen coming out of Baghouz. A child could be heard wailing from inside one of them.

Bali, in a separate Twitter post Tuesday, said the SDF captured a group of suspects involved in a January suicide bombing that killed four Americans in the northern town of Manbij in northern Syria. He said the suspects were captured following technical surveillance by the SDF. He did not elaborate on the number of suspects or whether they were among the most recent militants to surrender.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the blast which struck outside a popular restaurant in Manbij in January that killed at least 16 people, including two U.S. service members and two American civilians. It was the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.

Bali said the outcome of the ongoing investigation will be shared at a later time.

As they make their final stand, the IS militants have issued a string of statements this month claiming to have inflicted heavy losses on the SDF.

In an audio posted online Monday, the IS spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajer, issued his first message in six months, calling for revenge attacks by Muslims in Western countries in retaliation for the shooting attack on two New Zealand mosques that killed 50 people.

He also ridiculed U.S. declarations of the defeat of the Islamic State group, calling the claim of victory a “hallucination.”

Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed reporting.

The Conversation

How the Syrian uprising began and why it matters

March 14, 2019

Author: Wendy Pearlman, Associate Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University

Disclosure statement: Wendy Pearlman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Amid headlines about the Islamic State group and photographs of rubble, it can be easy to forget that the Syrian war began as a nonviolent uprising.

March 15, the uprising’s eighth anniversary, serves as a reminder that any enduring end to the Syrian conflict must address the grievances and aspirations that propelled its beginning. Violent repression cannot create a stable solution, no less a just one.

I’m a scholar of Middle East politics. Since 2012 I have interviewed hundreds of displaced Syrians across the Middle East and Europe. Those interviews are collected in my book, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria.”

Their stories describe suffocating fear and silence under the authoritarian regime that Hafez al-Assad established in 1970 and his son Bashar inherited.

They also describe how people risked their lives and worked together to fight their oppression.

Adapting and submitting

Before the civil war, a single ruling party, state surveillance and pervasive covert informants led Syria’s parents to raise children on the saying “Whisper, the walls have ears.”

An “Emergency Law,” in place since the 1960s, gave security forces far-reaching powers to arrest anyone at will.

“If they got even a sense that you’re not completely submitting to their demands, you’d be put where the sun doesn’t shine,” a university student told me. “No one would hear from you again.”

While security rule created fear, everyday corruption made indignities the norm. People with whom I spoke recounted their exasperation with paying bribes at every turn and watching regime cronies get rich while their livelihoods deteriorated.

Most demeaning was the sense that complicity was the only way to survive. A mother shrugged, “You just adapted to oppression and rotted along with it.”

Rebirth and transformation

In early 2011, the Arab Spring galvanized millions in protest in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Outside analysts and many Syrians themselves judged that a history of state violence left Syrians too afraid to go out. When a new Facebook page called for revolution on March 15, a few individuals broke the barrier of fear.

That Friday, larger protests formed in southern Syria and security forces opened fire, killing two unarmed protesters. A week later, tens of thousands joined demonstrations across the country.

Syrians recall those demonstrations and the hundreds that followed, as creative celebrations filled with dance, song and a sense of rebirth. After a lifetime of having to chirp praise for “the Leader,” this was the point Syrians went out and said “no.” Some describe it as the first time they had heard their own voice.

A graphic designer described how her husband was the first of the two of them to attend a demonstration. He returned to say, in tears, “Anyone who doesn’t live this moment cannot consider himself alive.” After her first demonstration, she told him that he was right.

Many felt that experience of protest was transformative socially, as well as personally. Hundreds of neighborhood committees formed to organize protests, bringing together people of different backgrounds to exchange ideas and work together. This civic engagement defied the collective distrust that the authoritarian state had actively fostered in order to control society.

Solidarity could be heroic.

“People took huge risks just to spread leaflets or bring someone to the hospital,” a young woman recalled. “I also did crazy things to rescue total strangers … Because we were together, shouting for the same goals.”

Assad crushes dissent

It took 12 days and 61 deaths before Bashar al-Assad delivered his first address about the crisis.

“If Bashar had made reform, we would have cheered him and made him king,” an engineer recalled.

Instead, the president vowed to crush unrest, which he denounced as a foreign conspiracy to foment sectarian strife.

People I interviewed regard such rhetoric as itself a strategy to “sectarianize” the conflict to divide citizens who shared a unifying aspiration for accountability and good governance. They insist that demonstrations often began at mosques not because they were led by Islamic extremists, but because mosques were the only place where people could legally gather. Many knew stories about Christians or atheists who participated in Friday prayers simply to join marches from the start.

Pounded by repression, the uprising swelled during spring 2011. Calls for reform escalated to demands to topple the regime. After months of overwhelmingly peaceful protests, some in the opposition took up arms.

The regime intensified its reprisals from tanks to indiscriminate aerial bombardment. Other states and non-state actors intervened on the side of the regime or an increasingly fragmented array of rebel groups, propelling a multi-sided war that shattered the country.

“We tried our best to build something,” an activist told me, a heavy sense of loss in her voice. “We faced a lot and we faced it alone. But we lost control.”

Telling the story

Today, violence has killed more than half a million Syrians and forced some 12 million to flee their homes.

Observers increasingly assert that the Assad regime has “won” the Syrian war.

As the saying goes, history is written by the victors. Assad has a tight grip on media and, in the years to come, Syrians expect that he will continue to promote a story about the conflict that ignores or maligns those who found their voices in peaceful protest eight years ago.

This will be a vengeful denial of one of the century’s bravest shows of people’s power. No less, it will be a denial of the many ways in which Syrians today continue to call for a society with freedom and justice – and without fear.

In the second part of this series, Wendy Pearlman writes that the struggle for freedom, dignity and justice that Syrians launched eight years ago is not over.

The Conversation

5 ways the Syrian revolution continues

Updated March 15, 2019

Author: Wendy Pearlman, Associate Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University

Disclosure statement: Wendy Pearlman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Bashar al-Assad has “won” the war in Syria – or so many analysts tell us.

His regime has reconquered swaths of territory from rebel forces with starvation-and-surrender sieges, barrel bombs, chemical weapons and what one human rights investigator called “industrial scale” torture and killing of detainees.

Still, the regime might have fallen had Russia not stepped in and begun bombarding opposition strongholds in 2015.

In areas now under Assad’s grip, Syrians speak of exhaustion, forced complicity with government rule and the return of the very walls of fear and silence that they sacrificed so much to tear down.

No one should underestimate the crushing toll of this violence or overestimate the capacity of any people to endure more than Syrians already have.

“We’re tired and we can’t bear any more blood. We’re afraid for Syria,” an activist told me. And that was in 2012.

But that does not mean that the struggle for freedom, dignity and justice that Syrians launched eight years ago is over.

Since 2012, I have interviewed hundreds of displaced Syrians who championed the uprising. I have seen that their revolution persists wherever Syrians continue to believe in their capacity to make change.

Five realms of activism and resilience stand out.

1. Nurturing civil society

Forty years of dictatorships stifled independent civil society in Syria. But the years since 2011 have witnessed a flourishing of citizen-led activities in fields from education to media and the creative arts.

In Syrian towns where rebels forced the state to withdraw, communities labored to create local councils through which people governed themselves. The regime subjected these experiments in civic participation to siege and bombardment, and then collapsed them in areas retaken by its troops.

Still, civic work continues inside and outside Syria. Citizens for Syria, itself a Syrian initiative, identifies hundreds of organizations and projects spearheaded by and for Syrians.

Among them are the Molham Volunteering Team which, beginning as a group of students, is now an essential nonprofit provider of humanitarian relief. Women Now for Development offers vocational training, literacy courses and small grants that have empowered hundreds of Syrian women.

In these and other efforts, Syrians are demonstrating their will to build a democratic society from the bottom up, against enormous odds. This is a realm in which individual and state contributions can help.

For example, the Trump administration froze stabilization funds for Syria in 2018. That forced to a halt at least 150 civil society organizations. Some laid-off staff had no choice but to seek salaries with the only entities that offered them: armed factions, including those that the United States identified as terrorist groups.

2. Mobilizing for detainees

Syrians continue to take action on behalf of the more than 100,000 citizens who have become forcibly disappeared. Most of them were nonviolent civilians arrested arbitrarily by the government.

Copious documentation details the torture, death, rape and sexual violence synonymous with imprisonment in Syria, and even the suspected use of crematoriums to dispose of prisoners executed en masse.

The members of Families for Freedom advocate for ‘freedom and justice for their loved ones who have been detained and forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime and armed groups.’ Families for Freedom

Defying despair, groups such as the Caesar Families Association and the women-led Families for Freedom demand release of information about detainees and humanitarian access to detention facilities. Their mobilization, from the streets of London to the halls of U.N. and EU conferences, is keeping attention to this issue that has left few Syrian families untouched.

3. Ending impunity

Syrians are working for justice and accountability. Teams are amassing exhaustive evidence of atrocities, from photographs of prisoners’ emaciated corpses to documents incriminating leaders by name.

Several European states are using the principle of universal jurisdiction to investigate, prosecute and convict Syrian officials implicated in crimes against humanity.

In recent weeks, authorities arrested three Syrian officers in Germany and France for torture constituting crimes against humanity. And Syrian refugees submitted dossiers of evidence against Assad to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

While state and international institutions have an important role to play, the real engine of the fight to end impunity in Syria is coming from Syrians themselves.

4. Demanding oversight for reconstruction

Assad will need hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the country that he played a large role in shattering.

Reports suggest that the Syrian government is already using reconstruction as “war by other means.”

For example, the Law No. 10 of 2018 proposed to give citizens limited time to register proof of ownership with the Syrian state before it would confiscate properties for “redevelopment.” Other legislation enables the regime to transfer these and other expropriated assets to private companies run by regime cronies.

Some Syrians are working to make sure that the Assad regime’s plans for reconstructing devastated towns do not enrich loyalists and rob the properties of citizens forced to flee as refugees. AP/Hassan Ammar

Critics decry such “lawfare” as a strategy to to control society and the economy, further dispossess those forced to flee the country and enrich loyalists and foreign allies. It might also serve as demographic engineering that cleanses areas of some ethnic or religious groups and replaces them with others.

Syrian activists drawing attention to the dangerous politics of reconstruction call for transparency and accountability that were missing in the realm of humanitarian relief.

Since 2011, for example, United Nations aid programs in Syria awarded tens of millions of dollars in contracts to Assad family members and associates, thereby propping up the regime. In working against repetition of such oversight failures, Syrians continue the revolution’s fight against corruption and unfairness.

5. Building dignified lives

The approximately 5.6 million refugees in countries on Syria’s borders continue to work to achieve their aspirations despite severe legal and economic precariousness.

Many lack minimal access to health care and decent housing. Some 40 percent of children are not in school.

As war dies down in Syria, host states and international agencies increasingly discuss refugees’ return. The small numbers who have gone back to Syria report that they did so because they could no longer endure the harshness of life in neighboring states. Yet return is not a safe solution; already some returnees have been disappeared or killed upon arrival.

Displaced persons are eager to continue that most revolutionary act of building dignified lives, but they cannot do so unless states offer them a modicum of safety and opportunity.

Past and continuing atrocities in Syria will haunt history for generations to come. That Syrians retain any hope in a better future is not only a testament to their sheer will. It is also a sign, I believe, that the revolution they began eight years ago continues today.

Syria’s uprising did not happen in a vacuum. Read the first part of this series, “How the Syrian uprising began and why it matters,” to hear the voices of Syrians describing the oppression that characterized their lives for decades, and how they mobilized against it.

Comment

Chris Saunders — Serious question: why would you hope that the “revolution they began” eight years ago continues today?

Ex-Peru president arrested in California for drunkenness

By PAUL ELIAS and CHRISTINE ARMARIO

Tuesday, March 19

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, wanted in his home country in connection with Latin America’s biggest graft scandal, was arrested in California on suspicion of public intoxication and spent the night in jail before being released Monday, authorities said.

Toledo is accused of taking $20 million in bribes while leading Peru. He has been living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Peruvian authorities have been seeking his extradition since 2017.

However, the arrest appears unlikely to hasten that process.

The 72-year-old Toledo was arrested after officers were called to a restaurant in Menlo Park just south of San Francisco, said San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Rosemerry Blankswade. Toledo was drunk and had refused requests to leave the establishment, she said.

He was released without charges, which Blankswade said is routine for most public drunkenness arrests.

Toledo was Peru’s president from 2001 to 2006 and developed a reputation for partying. His presidential aircraft became known as the “party plane” after a government official was caught on camera drunkenly singing a popular tune called “Pass Me the Bottle” while aboard a flight to Europe.

Toledo has denied reports about drinking.

After Toledo left power, incoming President Alan Garcia published a tally of Toledo’s liquor purchases during his time in the presidential palace: $164,000 in spirits, whisky, wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages.

Peruvian prosecutors accuse Toledo of taking $20 million in bribes from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht while president. He has denied wrongdoing. In February 2017, then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski asked President Donald Trump to deport the ex-Peruvian president.

Blankswade said the international police organization Interpol issued a “warning” to law enforcement agencies around the world to notify it when Toledo was arrested. Interpol officials told the San Mateo County sheriff’s office they had no immediate plans to take Toledo into custody.

“After reaching out to Peruvian officials and Interpol, we learned that the existence of charges in Peru alone does not authorize the subject’s arrest in the United States,” Blankswade said.

Toledo brushed off questions about his arrest on suspicion of public drunkenness during a brief radio interview Monday with Peru’s RPP radio.

“I’m at my home, writing my book,” he said when a reporter reached him on the phone.

Asked if he could clarify whether he had been detained, he said, “I’m not falling into that trap.”

Interpol officials did not immediately return phone messages left with the organization’s U.S. office in Washington.

In a statement, Peru’s foreign ministry said Toledo’s detention “has no relation with the extradition process underway, which is being handled with the utmost zeal and in coordination with various institutions.”

Odebrecht in 2016 acknowledged in a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to paying some $800 million in bribes to politicians throughout Latin America. The scandal has hit a particularly rough note in Peru, where nearly every living president is suspected or under investigation for ties to Odebrecht.

All of Peru’s former presidents have denied wrongdoing.

Toledo moved to Northern California shortly after leaving office to work and study at Stanford University in Palo Alto, according to a 2007 San Francisco Chronicle report.

Toledo earned a doctoral degree in education and two master’s degrees from Stanford, where he delivered the commencement speech to the school’s graduating class of 2003 while still in office.

He has held a variety of fellowships and visiting scholar positions at Stanford until 2017, according to university announcements. In 2017, the same year Peruvian officials announced they were seeking to arrest Toledo, Stanford spokeswoman Brooke Donald told a Latin American media outlet that the college was severing its ties with Toledo, who she said was an unpaid “volunteer” who didn’t teach.

Stanford officials didn’t respond to email and phone inquiries Monday.

The public drunkenness arrest marks the latest chapter in what has been a stunning fall from grace for the man who rose out of poverty to become Peru’s first president with indigenous roots.

Toledo grew up shining shoes and selling lottery tickets in northern Peru, one of 16 children, at least seven of which did not survive to adulthood. A happenstance meeting with a U.S. humanitarian worker couple set his life on an unexpected trajectory: With their help, he applied and won a scholarship to the University of San Francisco.

His jovial nature, ease with the masses and opposition to strongman Alberto Fujimori helped him clinch the presidency in 2001. He proudly called himself “El Cholo” — a term referring to his indigenous ancestry.

The nation’s economy boomed under his leadership, with gross domestic product rising from 0.2 percent to 6.8 percent.

Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia. Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru contributed to this report.

This frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows Islamic State fighters firing their weapons during clashes with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, in Baghouz, the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/03/web1_122525717-35ad40b628ba4b85b1b635f502cfc884.jpgThis frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows Islamic State fighters firing their weapons during clashes with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, in Baghouz, the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)

This frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows IS fighters walking as they hold the group’s flag inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/03/web1_122525717-5996e39f2a0f416d8043cbfd49487185.jpgThis frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows IS fighters walking as they hold the group’s flag inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)

This frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows smoke rising as an IS fighter walking inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the IS announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/03/web1_122525717-6fe05efa0b764f6da8495d1bcb1341b7.jpgThis frame grab from video posted online Monday, March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows smoke rising as an IS fighter walking inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the IS announced Tuesday they have taken control over an encampment in an eastern Syrian village where IS militants have been besieged for months, refusing to surrender. (Aamaq News Agency via AP)
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