NEAR BAGHOUZ: Syrian fighters backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition battled a fierce extremist fightback Monday as they pushed to retake a last morsel of territory from the Daesh group.
Mushrooming black clouds rose over the embattled extremist holdout in eastern Syria, as missiles and a warplane streaked through the sky.
More than four years after the extremists declared a “caliphate” across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, several offensives have whittled that proto-state down to a tiny holdout.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border.
The US-led coalition maintained a steady beat of bombings on the last Daesh pocket on Monday after an early morning Daesh counterattack caused several SDF casualties.
“IS launched a counterattack on our forces and we are now responding with rockets, air strikes and direct clashes,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told AFP, using an acronym for Daesh.
The sound of bombs echoed dozens of kilometers (miles) away and columns of dark grey smoke could be seen from SDF territory.
Bali said there were “dozens of SDF hostages held by IS” inside their last foothold, but denied reports of executions.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters had pressed on Monday morning in the face of tough obstacles.
“The SDF are advancing slowly in what remains of the IS pocket” on the edges of the village of Baghouz, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
But land mines, Daesh snipers, and tunnels the extremists have dug out for their defense are hindering the advance, he said.
Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to oust the extremists from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.
Since December, tens of thousands of people, most women and children related to Daesh fighters, have fled to SDF territory.
US-backed forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential extremists for questioning.
On Monday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from Daesh areas.
Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.
Some 600 people were able to reach SDF territory on Sunday after fleeing the fighting, the Observatory said.
Among them, were 20 suspected IS members, including two French women, seven Turks, and three Ukrainians, said the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria.
The SDF — which has said it expects the final offensive to be over in days — announced Sunday that it had taken some 40 positions from the extremists following direct combat involving light weapons.
The alliance had earlier said that up to 600 jihadists as well as hundreds of civilians could remain inside a patch four square kilometers (one mile square).
Spokesman Bali said Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the man who pronounced the cross-border “caliphate” in 2014, was not among them, and likely not in Syria.