The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group said Thursday that a prominent French militant who is one of Europe’s most wanted members of the extremist group has been killed in an airstrike in Syria.
The coalition tweeted that a strike killed Fabien Clain, who is linked to the 2015 attacks on Paris, in the Syrian village of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates River where the militant group is making its last stand.
Coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said the airstrike occurred on Feb. 20, but gave no further details.
French authorities did not immediately comment on the announcement, but said last week they were working on verifying reports that Clain had been killed.
The day after the Nov. 13, 2015 attacks on Paris, Clain’s voice announced in a recording that the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the onslaught. The attacks killed 130 people at the Bataclan concert hall, cafes and the national stadium.
Clain was believed to have been in Syria since 2015. Officials suspect that a number of French extremists remain holed up in Baghouz.
From a self-proclaimed caliphate that once stretched over large areas of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group has been reduced to a tiny speck of land in the village of Baghouz, where a few hundred IS militants are holed up with family members and other civilians who are among the group’s most determined supporters, many of whom traveled to Syria from all over the world.
SDF officials have denied there were negotiations with the militants, some of whom had asked for an exit.
SDF commanders on Thursday said they have freed 24 of their fighters held by IS, and uncovered a mass grave near Baghouz.
Adnan Afrin, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the grave unearthed a few days ago outside Baghouz contains the remains of men and women but said the number of bodies and their identities remain unclear.
“An investigation is still underway to determine their nationality and the manner of killing,” said Afrin, adding they were looking into reports that they may be Yazidis or IS fighters.
A video posted by Kurdish-run Furat FM TV on Wednesday showed several bodies dug out from a pit — mostly women and children.
A station executive, Salah Youssef, said those in the mass grave appear to have been shot in the head. He said authorities are investigating whether the bodies are those of women and children who had refused to stay under IS rule and were shot as they tried to escape, or belonged to IS fighters who were killed fighting the SDF. Youssef said there are reports of more than one mass grave.
Thousands of civilians, many of them women and children, have evacuated the area in the past few weeks on foot, many saying they had paid smugglers to get out.
But for the past week, trucks have brought out in intermittent batches hundreds of civilians, mostly members of IS families and wounded men, in an organized evacuation amid a truce in the fighting.
Afrin said his forces managed to free 24 SDF fighters from the extremist group’s hold while evacuating civilians from the area in the past days. The SDF fighters were taken hostage by IS during recent fighting.
In a video released by the SDF press office Thursday, the leader of the force Mazloum Kobani is seen meeting with a number of newly released fighters. One of the soldiers said they had spent 22 days in captivity.
Kobani said “the main reason” military operations against IS have stopped is to allow for the liberation of more hostages. He added that a full victory against IS is days away.
“They think themselves very strong but it is not like this,” he said.
The fate of a number of foreign hostages and Syrian and Iraqi detainees by IS also remains unknown as the group’s territory has shrunk. SDF officials said they are probing whether some of those hostages may still be in the hands of the militants in Baghouz.
In recent days, at least 13 Yazidi children, including two girls, were released from inside the IS pocket.
Recapturing Baghouz would mark an end to the militants’ territorial rule, but few believe that will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq and that has active affiliates in Egypt, West Africa and elsewhere. The group also has a presence online, using social media to recruit new members and promote its attacks.
In Geneva, U.N.-backed investigators focusing on Syria expressed concern that Islamic State fighters and their affiliates are being held by U.S. troops and Syrian opposition forces without proper legal protections.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic presented its findings based on investigations conducted over the past six months saying that in areas under the control of the SDF, thousands of women, men and children “continued to be unlawfully interned or detained, some of them held in deplorable conditions in makeshift camps unfit to meet their basic needs.”
The report released in Geneva on Thursday said there is a concern that IS “terrorists and their affiliates are being held incommunicado by SDF and American forces without adequate judicial guarantees, conditions that are conducive to detainee abuse.”
Officials from the Kurdish-led administration had no immediate comment on the report.