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IS head Baghdadi believed dead after US strike in Syria

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(FILES) In this undated filer image grab taken from a video released by Al-Furqan media on April 29, 2019, the chief of the Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi purportedly appears for the first time in five years in a propaganda video in an undisclosed location.  AFP PHOTO / AL-FURQAN

Jihadist supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted man, was believed Sunday to have been killed in a US special operation in northwest Syria.

The elusive chief of the Islamic State group was thought to be dead after a US military raid in the Idlib region, US media reported early Sunday.

The White House announced President Donald Trump would make a “major statement” Sunday at 9:00 am (1300 GMT), without providing details.

A war monitor said US helicopters dropped forces in an area of Idlib where “groups linked to the Islamic State group” were present.

The helicopters targeted a home and a car outside the village of Barisha in an operation that killed nine people including an IS senior leader called Abu Yamaan as well as a child and two women, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It was not immediately clear if Baghdadi had been in the area, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

An AFP correspondent outside the village of Barisha in Idlib province saw what appeared to have been a minibus scorched to cinders by the side of the road.

A resident in the area who gave his name as Abdel Hameed said he rushed to the place of the attack after he heard helicopters, gunfire and strikes in the night.

“The home had collapsed and next to it there was a destroyed tent and vehicle. There were two people killed inside,” he told AFP.

 ‘Historic op’
US media cited multiple government sources as saying Baghdadi may have killed himself with a suicide vest as US special operations forces descended.

He was the target of the secretly planned operation that was approved by Trump, officials said according to US media.

The commander-in-chief of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces who have been fighting IS in Syria said the operation came after “joint intelligence work” with American forces.

“A historic operation is successful as a consequence of joint intelligence work with the United States of America,” he said on Twitter shortly after the news broke.

From the outskirts of Barisha, an inhabitant of a camp for the displaced also heard helicopters followed by what he described as coalition air strikes.

They “were flying very low, causing great panic among the people,” Ahmed Hassawi told AFP by phone.

The AFP correspondent said the area of the night-time strikes had been cordoned off by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate controlling Idlib.

Long pursued by the US-led coalition against IS, Baghdadi has been erroneously reported dead several times in recent years.

Officials told ABC News that biometric work was under way to firm up the identification of those killed in the raid.

Trump earlier tweeted, without explaining, “Something very big has just happened!”

In 2014, IS overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and Baghdadi appeared in a video that summer announcing a “caliphate” in regions they controlled.

At the height of IS rule, Baghdadi held sway over millions people in the cross-border proto-state, where IS implemented its brutal version of Islamic law.

It was blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians and accused of war crimes.

But several offensives in both countries whittled down that territory, and in March the US-backed SDF ousted the extremist group from its last patch of territory in eastern Syria.

$25 million reward 
Baghdadi — an Iraqi native believed to be around 48 years old — was rarely seen.

After 2014 he disappeared from sight, only surfacing in a video in April this year with a wiry grey and red beard and an assault rifle at his side, as he encouraged followers to “take revenge” for IS members who had been killed.

His reappearance was seen as a reassertion of his leadership of a group that, while it had lost its physical territory, had spread from the Middle East to Asia and Africa and claimed several deadly attacks in Europe.

But Baghdadi remained on the run. The US State Department posted a $25 million reward for information on his whereabouts.

Under Baghdadi, the State Department said, IS “has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the Middle East, including the brutal murder of numerous civilian hostages from Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States”.

In September, the group released an audio message said to be from Baghdadi praising the operations of IS affiliates in other regions.

It also called on scattered IS fighters to regroup and try to free thousands of their comrades held in jails and camps by the SDF in northeastern Syria.

Idlib is controlled by former Al-Qaeda affiliate HTS, and includes the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters from the Hurras al-Deen group as well as IS cells, according to the Observatory.

“If Baghdadi was indeed in Barisha, it will be interesting to understand how he managed to even get there (through Syria or through Turkey?),” tweeted Michael Horowitz, a Middle East security analyst with the Le Beck consultancy.


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