Baghouz (Syria) (AFP) – Kurdish-led forces pounded the last scrap of land held by the Islamic State group Monday, a scattering of tents and destroyed buildings in a remote eastern Syrian hamlet.
The jihadists once ruled over millions in a swathe of Syria and Iraq, but they have since lost all that territory except for a riverside bastion near the Iraqi border.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces paused their months-old offensive against the shrinking holdout multiple times for thousands of dust-covered women, children and men to flee, including suspected jihadists.
But after that human flow slowed to a trickle, the Kurdish-led force late Sunday told remaining IS fighters time was up for any surrenders and they were moving in.
Beyond the frontline on Monday, warplanes were heard rumbling overhead, and the sound of sporadic gunfire rang out from the jihadist encampment, AFP correspondents said.
SDF fighters sat on plastic chairs on the roof of an abandoned building, watching over the camp hundreds of metres from fields dotted with palm trees.
Sirens screaming, an ambulance hurtled across the ruins in the village of Baghouz. A small pickup truck followed, in the back of which a female SDF fighter tended to a comrade lying under blankets, his leg bandaged.
“The clashes were heavy” overnight, SDF unit commander Aras Orkeish told AFP, with IS defending its last patch with “suicide bombers” and “car bombs”.
“The operation slowed down after midnight. Several hundred (people) gave themselves up and we paused to get them out,” he added.
– Riverside camp –
The SDF launched the renewed assault on Sunday after no civilians were observed to remain in the riverside encampment.
By Monday morning, the SDF had seized several positions from the jihadists, an official with the US-backed forces said.
The warplanes of a US-led coalition and mortar fire overnight pounded weapons caches, and tank fire targeted IS positions, the official and a spokesman said.
It was unclear how many people remained inside the pocket on the banks of the Euphrates River, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said late Sunday.
“We expect there to be from 1,000 to 1,500 terrorists inside,” he said.
“During the advance, if our forces notice the presence of civilians our special units they will do the necessary to bring them away from the clashes or even work to evacuate them,” he said.
“The operation will continue until Baghouz is liberated and until the end of the terrorist military presence in that area.”
Since December, nearly 59,000 people have left the last IS redoubt, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around a tenth of them suspected jihadist fighters.
The last IS fighters are hunkering down in an area that includes a dismal camp of pickup trucks and cloth-covered trenches by the reedy banks of the Euphrates.
The SDF pushed into the IS encampment some 10 days ago, discovering spent ammunition, pots and pans lying between hastily-dug trenches and berms.
At the height of its brutal rule, IS controlled a stretch of land in Syria and Iraq the size of the United Kingdom.
The total capture of the Baghouz camp by the SDF would be a symbolic blow to IS, and mark the end of the cross-border “caliphate” it proclaimed in 2014.
– Humanitarian crisis –
But beyond Baghouz, IS retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and sleeper cells in the northeast.
They have continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held territory in recent months, and the US military has warned of the need to maintain a “vigilant offensive”.
The United States is expected to keep 200 “peace-keeping” troops in Syria after the end of the offensive, despite President Donald Trump’s shock announcement in December that all 2,000 American soldiers would leave.
The exodus out of Baghouz in recent months has sparked a humanitarian crisis, leaving aid organisations struggling to cope.
Those fleeing Baghouz have emerged exhausted and hungry after a prolonged siege.
Dozens of young children have died along the way or shortly after arriving at a Kurdish-run displacement camp in the northeast, an aid organisation has said.
After fleeing the pocket, SDF members screen the crowds to weed out suspected jihadists and detain them.
Syria’s Kurds hold hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for IS as well as members of their families.
But their home countries have mostly been reluctant to take them back, with Britain stripping several women of their nationalities.
Morocco said it had repatriated on Sunday eight of its nationals from Syria, who will be investigated for “suspected involvement in acts linked to terrorism”.