(AFP) BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian troops and their allies on Wednesday encircled the Islamic State group in Albu Kamal, state media said, edging closer to ousting the jihadists from their last urban stronghold in the country.
Albu Kamal lies on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq, in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
After a series of defeats in the province and the loss of IS’s de facto capital Raqa further north, Albu Kamal is the only Syrian urban center left in the hands of the jihadists.
“Army troops and allied forces have completely encircled Daesh terrorists in Albu Kamal and have begun operations to eradicate them from the town,” state news agency SANA reported, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Syrian regime forces, backed by intensive Russian air strikes, have advanced on the town from the south and west for weeks.
And Iraqi forces have closed in on the border area from the east, seizing the town of Al-Qaim from the jihadists last week.
“The advance towards Albu Kamal came after army troops and their allies met up with Iraqi forces at the border between the two countries,” SANA said Wednesday.
A source from the militias allied to Damascus told AFP that fighters from Lebanon’s pro-regime Hezbollah movement had advanced to the southern edges of Albu Kamal on Wednesday.
“Part of those units crossed into Iraq, with the help of Hashed al-Shaabi units, to circle around Albu Kamal and reach the northern side of the town,” the source added.
The Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance has denied that its own forces entered Syria on Wednesday as part of the fight.
IS overran vast swathes of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province in 2014 during a military sweep across Syria and Iraq, where it declared a self-styled “caliphate.”
But the jihadist group has seen that territory shrink down to a small pocket along the Euphrates River, with Albu Kamal as its final hub.
Tens of thousands have been displaced by fighting to oust IS from the area, many living in desperate conditions in desert camps.
In recent weeks, an estimated 120,000 people have been displaced from Albu Kamal alone, said Linda Tom from the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs coordination office in Damascus.
On Friday, Syrian forces backed by Russian air power took full control of Deir Ezzor, which was the last city where IS still had a presence.
The US-led coalition that has been fighting IS in an offensive separate to that of the Russian-backed regime estimated recently that there were 1,500 jihadists in the Euphrates Valley border area.
Moscow is a close ally of Syria’s President Bashar Assad and launched a military intervention in support of his government in September 2015.
More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, before spiraling into a complex, multi-front war that drew in international forces and jihadists.