U.S.-backed Syria forces advancing into Islamic State enclave

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters besieging Islamic State’s final shred of territory in eastern Syria said they had pushed further into the enclave following clashes and air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition on Thursday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces said this week the battle for Baghouz, a collection of hamlets and farmland near the Iraqi border, was as good as over, but the remaining hardline jihadists are waging last stand attacks which include groups of suicide bombers.

“Our fighters advanced deep into areas controlled by the terrorist organization and established a number of new points, following clashes in which terrorists sustained a number of deaths and injuries,” a statement from the SDF press office said.

SDF media official Chiager Amed said Islamic State fighters had used the cover from smoke and dust in the air to attack SDF forces on Wednesday.

“SDF thwarted their attacks and burned an arms deport,” he said.

Live footage broadcast by Kurdish Ronahi TV showed large fires raging in Baghouz overnight.

The SDF said 15 members of Islamic State had been killed on Thursday morning after they tried to attack SDF troops.

Islamic State held roughly a third of Syria and Iraq at the zenith of its power in 2014, when its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all the world’s Muslims.

The group was steadily beaten back by a range of enemies, including the U.S.-led international coalition, suffering major defeats in 2017 when it lost the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa.

No Islamic State leaders are believed to be in Baghouz, according to a U.S. defense official. U.S. government experts strongly believe Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The group is still assessed to remain a potent security threat operating in remote territory in both Syria and Iraq.

The SDF has laid siege to Baghouz for weeks but had repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters, to leave. It resumed the attack on Sunday.

Reporting by Ellen Francis near Baghouz, Syria; Writing by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams

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