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Syria claims victory in battle to liberate Deir el-Zour from Islamic State

The Syrian army has announced it has liberated the long-contested eastern city of Deir el-Zour from the Islamic State group.

It marks another defeat for the extremists as their self-proclaimed caliphate crumbles and almost all their urban strongholds in Syria and Iraq have been lost.

The recapture of Deir el-Zour, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, is another victory for President Bashar Assad's forces, though largely symbolic in the military's bigger fight to capture most of the oil-rich province along the border with Iraq.

Deir el-Zour, which had been divided into a government-held and an IS-held part for nearly three years, is the largest city in eastern Syria and the capital of the province with the same name. It is the largest to be recaptured by the Syrian government from IS.

Army spokesman General Ali Mayhoub declared victory in Deir el-Zour, describing it as the "last phase" in the military's campaign towards the complete annihilation of IS in Syria.

His statement, read on Syrian state TV, hailed the city's recapture as a strategic win, noting its location on a crossroad linking the country's eastern, northern and central regions, as well as an "oil and gas reservoir" - a reference to the province.

"With the loss of Deir el-Zour, Daesh loses its ability to lead terrorist operations by its militants who are now isolated and encircled east of the city," he said, using the Arabic name for IS.

The extremist group has lost more than 90% of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria at the height of its power in 2014 and 2015, including Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in northern Syria.

It also comes as Iraqi forces and allied Shiite militiamen are chasing IS remnants inside the town of Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border.

The militants, routed from one urban stronghold after another, have recently been moving deeper into Syria's remote desert, where experts say they are regrouping and preparing to return to guerrilla-style attacks including scattered hit-and-run and suicide bombings.

In a statement, the Syrian military said it was in full control of the city, after a weeks-long campaign carried out with allied forces. It said army units are removing booby traps and mines left behind by the extremist group.

Syrian government forces and their allies first broke the militant group's siege of their part of the city in September in a Russian-backed offensive, and have been advancing against IS positions since then.

The Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, and Kurdish-led Syrian forces, backed by the US, are now racing to take the rest of the oil-rich eastern province of Deir el-Zour, including the key town of Boukamal near the Iraqi border.

IS's last territorial stronghold in Iraq was the town of Qaim, across the border from the Syrian town of Boukamal.

An Iraqi officer in Iraq's western Anbar region said on Friday that Iraqi forces have reached the border with Syria as they continue to close in on the pocket of militant-held territory.

The Iraqi forces are pushing into western neighbourhoods of Qaim, the joint command said and Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi pledged the battle will be finished within days.

AP

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