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Coalition warplanes hit last Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria

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U.S.-led coalition warplanes struck Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria and hundreds of civilians fled the besieged enclave on Monday as U.S.-backed fighters pressed their campaign to seize it.

Coalition jets roared overhead as columns of white smoke rose from the Islamic State-held Baghouz area a short distance from the Iraqi border, a Reuters witness said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have driven Islamic State (IS) from swathes of northern and eastern Syria with U.S.-led coalition support, launched an offensive on Saturday to capture the enclave in Deir al-Zor province.

The jihadists are putting up stiff resistance and had sought to counter-attack again on Monday morning, according to Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office. Around 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, he added.

SDF combatants watched as a column of at least 17 trucks filled with men, women and children left Baghouz along a dusty track into SDF-held territory. Women and children were crammed into the back of one of the trucks.

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Some of those fleeing identified themselves as Iraqis.

“It seems there are still many civilians inside Baghouz,” Bali said. “We are compelled to go cautiously and accurately in this battle.”

On the outskirts of Baghouz, the people who had left stood in lines to be questioned by coalition and SDF forces apparently trying to identify whether any were jihadists.

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Ahead of launching the attack, the SDF said more than 20,000 civilians had left Baghouz in the preceeding 10 days.

The SDF believes 400 to 600 jihadists may be holed up there, including foreigners and other hardened militants.

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large tracts of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

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The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province after capturing Raqqa. Their operations have been focused in areas east of the Euphrates River.

To the west of the Euphrates, in territory otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies, Islamic State retains a foothold in mountainous terrain.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.

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The top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday that the United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal.

Islamic State is still widely seen as a threat, however.

A top U.S. general said last week IS would be an enduring menace following the U.S. withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel further insurgency.

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Italian freelance photographer Gabriele Micalizzi was wounded on Monday while covering the battles, Italian media reported. The reports said Micalizzi was badly hurt but had not suffered life-threatening injuries and was being flown to Baghdad where he would be evacuated to Italy.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich


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Jeffrey Epstein wasn’t even a competent investor: report

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There can be no doubt that high-powered hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein would rather the public know him for his prominence and success as an investor than for the allegations of child sex trafficking, for which he has now been indicted and faces life in prison. And there has for years been mystique surrounding Epstein's business — his wealth fund is so exclusive that it reportedly requires a billion dollars up front from clients.

But according to the Dow Jones' periodical Barron's, Epstein may not even be good at that.

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Jon Stewart blasts ‘abomination’ of Rand Paul trying to ‘balance the budget on the backs of’ 9/11 responders

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On Wednesday's edition of Fox News' "Special Report," comedian and activist Jon Stewart slammed Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) for blocking unanimous consent for a bill to support health care for 9/11 first responders.

"Pardon me if I'm not impressed in any way by Rand Paul's fiscal responsibility virtue signaling," said Stewart to anchor Bret Baier, who appeared on the show with first responder and activist John Feal.

He added that Paul's complaint, that the bill was unfunded, rings hollow given that he "added hundreds of billions of dollars to our deficit" with the GOP tax cuts for billionaires. He castigated Paul for trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the 9/11 first responder community."

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Trump supporters chant ‘send her back’ as president hurls racially-charged accusations at Rep. Omar

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At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, President Donald Trump on Wednesday accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) of anti-American sentiments and speech. He said that she belittled 9/11, along with a slew of other accusations that were racially charged.

One-by-one, his rally supporters booed each thing he claimed she did or said. Then the booing turned into a chant: "Send her back! Send her back!"

Omar is an immigrant from Somalia who emigrated along with her parents when she was just 12-years-old. Her family claimed asylum from their war-torn country.

Trump said on Twitter that he believed she, along with three other Congresswomen of color, should be sent back to the countries they're from. Trump's campaign and Republicans proceeded to spend the days that followed claiming that Trump simply wanted them to leave the U.S. if they didn't like it.

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