WASHINGTON, Sept 28 (KUNA) -- US Central Command confirmed it is searching for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi following the release by the Islamic State of audio purportedly of its leader on Thursday.
The 46 minute audio recording is the first from the self-proclaimed caliph since last November.
Russian military officials claimed to have struck and possibly killed al-Baghdadi in May outside Raqqa. However, US officials raised doubt about his demise and are continuing the search for his whereabouts.
"Without verifiable evidence of his death we continue to assume he is alive. We have professionals in our organization that are specifically looking for al-Baghdadi," according to US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for Centcom's Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.
US and Coalition forces have launched military strikes against the few remaining IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi security forces have scored new advances in and around Hawija within 72 hours, according to Dillon.
In Syria, US and allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have retaken 75 percent of the northeastern city of Raqqa from so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters. An estimated 400-800 IS fighters are currently sequestered to roughly 2.5 mile area of the city, Dillon said.
Coalition airstrikes killed three high-value targets linked to in the extremist group's weaponized battlefield drone operations.
"IS is losing on all fronts and they are losing their grip on their few remaining strongholds in both Iraq and Syria," Dillon said.
"We fully expect fierce fighting in the days ahead."
In Deir ez-Zor, Russian-backed Syrian regime forces conducted artillery strikes in the vicinity of SDF fighters, causing casualties, Dillon reported. The move stoked tensions already high by the close proximity of opposing US and Syrian forces in the area. Coalition officials immediately informed Russian counterparts of the incident using the deconfliction line, designed to ease tensions between the two sides.
Responding to questions about the recent Kurdish referendum for independence, Dillon said the vote has no effect on the military operations out of Irbil. However, while current operations are continuing to push against IS in Iraq he noted that "laser-focus" attention has wavered as a result of referendum.(end)