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  • A fighter from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds a baby near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria Mar. 1, 2019.

    A fighter from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds a baby near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria Mar. 1, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 2 March 2019

A battle has been ongoing since a final advance from the SDF pushed Islamic State group fighters into their last known standing in eastern Syria.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have advanced into the Islamic State group’s final stronghold in Baghouz, Syria, where fighting is ongoing -- a monumental development after four years of international efforts to quell the group that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

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The U.S.-backed SDF, which is made of factions and groups from different ethnic communities in Syria, began the assault Thursday to capture the enclave and eliminate the group's last territorial rule. However, despite the SDF’s military advance in the eastern Syrian village, the Islamic state group still remains a threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding onto desolate land farther west. The final advance was slowed for weeks by the extremist militants' extensive use of tunnels and human shields.

Around midday, columns of smoke could be seen rising from inside the village but the scene appeared calm, Reuters reported. Warplanes hovered in the sky, but no airstrikes were observed. A spokesman for the United States-led international coalition, which supports the Kurdish-led SDF, said it was too early to assess the battle's progress "as it is a complicated situation with many variables".

In 2014, the extremist Sunni group declared a modern-day “Caliphate," across large swathes of territory seized in blitzes, or lightning strikes, in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Thousands of fighters, followers, and civilians, have poured out of the tiny cluster of hamlets and farmlands in Deir al-Zor province over the last few weeks and retreated to Baghouz as the group was gradually driven out of areas.

Their evacuation held up the final assault until Friday evening when the SDF said it had advanced and would not stop until the extremist fighters were defeated. The Islamic State group responded with drones and rockets. Seven SDF fighters have been wounded so far, commander Adnan Afrin said.

"We expect it to be over soon," Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Reuters shortly after sunrise. He said the SDF were advancing on two fronts using medium and heavy weaponry.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred Islamic State insurgents - believed mostly to be foreigners - to be still in Baghouz, and the U.S.-led international coalition has described them as the "most hardened" militants.

IS fighters waving flags, travel in vehicles as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province Jun. 30, 2014. | Source: Reuters

The SDF commander-in-chief said Thursday that his force would declare victory within a week, though U.S. President Donald Trump contradicted him later, saying that SDF had retaken 100 percent of the territory once held by the extremist group.

Washington has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to support the SDF. Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them, but the White House partially reversed itself last month, saying some 400 troops would stay.

Some 40,000 people bearing various nationalities have left the group's' diminishing territory in the last three months as the SDF sought to oust the militants from remaining pockets.

The number of evacuees streaming out of Baghouz surpassed initial estimates of how many were inside. Afrin told Reuters Thursday that many of the people leaving the enclave had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

A 27-year-old Indonesian widow who emerged Friday said she would have liked to stay in former Islamic State group territory but conceded that conditions had become untenable.

"I have no money, I have no food for my baby, no medicine, nothing for my baby, so I must go out," she told Reuters.


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