Middle East

Syria conflict: Turkey says capture of IS stronghold of al-Bab nearly complete

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters take position in al-Bab, 22 February Image copyright AFP
Image caption FSA fighters say the town is heavily mined

Turkish-backed forces battling the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the north Syrian town of al-Bab have taken "near complete control", Turkey says.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have reached the town centre and are working to find and clear mines, Defence Minister Fikri Isik told Turkish media.

Fighting has been reported elsewhere in the town, under siege since November.

Turkish troops, Kurdish fighters, the Syrian army and Russian planes have also been involved in the operation.

If al-Bab does now fall, it will represent another setback for IS, which has gradually been pushed back from the Turkish border since last August.

Turkey is also seeking to limit gains to the east by Kurdish forces.

'Every metre is mined'

"It's been a long time since we came to al-Bab but today we can say that near complete control has been taken of al-Bab and the city centre has been entered," Mr Isik was quoted as saying by Anadolu news agency.

"When the search and combing operations are over, we will be able to say that al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh [IS] elements. This does not need too much more time," he said.

An FSA fighter in al-Bab told Reuters news agency by telephone that the city centre had been reached on Wednesday but a suicide attack had forced the FSA fighters back.

Following a new push on Thursday, 85-90% of the town was under FSA control, he said.

"The whole of the city is mined," he said. "I can say that every metre is mined."

The IS news agency, Amaq, said there had been fierce fighting in al-Bab on Wednesday.

It referred to the battle for the town in the past tense, apparently acknowledging that it was over.

Situated just north-east of Aleppo, al-Bab has about 100,000 inhabitants in the centre and about 50,000 more living in the suburbs.

It fell to Syrian rebels in spring 2012 and was in IS hands by early 2014, when it became home to many foreign jihadists and their families.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last year that the capture of al-Bab, the jihadist group's last major stronghold in Aleppo province, would be the prelude to taking Raqqa, seen by IS as its capital in Syria.

Turkish military casualties have mounted since the operation began against al-Bab, with 14 soldiers killed in a single day in December.