Time is running out for fighters defending the last shred of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria.
About 15,000 U.S.-backed forces in Syria launched their final assault on the small IS enclave in the northeastern Syrian village of Baghuz late Friday, supported by U.S. and coalition warplanes and artillery.
By Saturday morning, despite heavy fighting, officials were confident the battle would not last much longer.
“We expect it to be over soon,” Syrian Democratic Force spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted Saturday.
Earlier, Bali told VOA that SDF forces were fighting street-to-street against the IS fighters defending a patch of land covered by tents and broken buildings.
“Heavy weapons are being used,” Bali said. “Militants are still planting and using IEDs and bombs are exploding as the SDF forces are advancing.”
According to a spokesman with the Kurdish YPG militia, which has also been taking part in the battle against IS, at least four U.S.-backed troops had been injured.
SDF officials said many IS fighters had been killed but declined to give an estimate.
Both U.S. and SDF officials had been bracing for a difficult fight, warning those IS fighters who remained in Baghuz were among the most dedicated and hardened that the terror group had to offer. And as in past battles, officials expected IS to make heavy use of booby traps, improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.
Sources close to SDF officials on the ground told VOA there was also grave concern that an unknown number of IS fighters were hiding below ground in a network that may extend for more than 2 kilometers.
SDF and coalition officials had estimated more than a week ago that Baghuz held about 300 IS fighters, as well as a few thousand civilians. But according to United Nations officials more than 13,000 civilians fled the enclave in the past week alone, many having hidden initially in the tunnels.
As late as Thursday, some of those fleeing Baghuz civilians were saying hundreds more civilians were still in hiding. But SDF officials rejected those accounts.
“There aren’t any civilians left in Baghuz, so it’s a matter of time before we take a full control of it,” SDF spokeswoman Lilwa Abdullah told VOA late Friday, describing the initial fighting as intense.
“We will keep fighting until we break into their last defense line,” she added.
Trump says caliphate fallen
The final assault on Baghuz comes just a day after U.S. President Donald Trump told U.S. soldiers that the final shred of the IS caliphate had already fallen.
“We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent, the caliphate in Syria. Now it’s 100 percent,” he said while visiting with U.S. troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska on Thursday.
But commanders with the U.S.-backed forces have until now been skeptical of a quick fight.
The SDF’s commander-in-chief on Thursday predicted it could take a week to clear the remaining IS fighters from Baghuz.
Another official cautioned, “Victory doesn’t seem to be coming in next days.”
Despite having been reduced to a small patch of land, IS has held on by using civilians as human shields and by using the tunnels and caves to launch occasional counterattacks against SDF forces.
“It is a very difficult and complex situation,” coalition spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, told VOA Tuesday. “The threat remains as long as Daesh (IS) fighters have not given up in Baghuz and have the will and weapons to fight.”
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