US-backed Syrian fighters resume attack on Islamic State

BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) – United States (US) -backed Syrian fighters resumed their offensive on the last pocket held by the Islamic State (IS) group in eastern Syria on Sunday, lighting the skies over the besieged village as artillery shelling and heavy gunfire rang out in the distance.

Warplanes and drones circled over the besieged village of Baghouz. Explosions and fires illuminated columns of smoke over Baghouz as it came under intense artillery and rocket fire. On several occasions the village was struck with apparent cluster fire.

After sunset, amid thuds of artillery a large column of smoke rose up, illuminated by explosions, apparently after a strike by cluster fire.

The operation was launched around 6pm after a deadline for IS gunmen to surrender expired, tweeted Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). He said warplanes struck ammunition belonging to the extremists.

“The fighting is direct and intense,” Bali said, adding that so far there have been no casualties among SDF fighters.

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) peer through holes in a wall of a house on the front line where Islamic State (IS) militants are making their last stand in Baghouz, Syria. – AP

Clashes had already broken out earlier in the day, with IS snipers targetting SDF positions and prompting a rattle of gunfire in response. Associated Press reporters witnessed SDF fighters take cover in a damaged building and fire back at the extremists. They packed high-caliber bullets into munitions belts and headed to the front line.

The assault was renewed days after thousands of people left the tiny village held by IS on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border area.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 women and children are believed to still be in the pocket, along with around 500 IS fighters, said an SDF commander on the outskirts of Baghouz, who identified himself as Ali Sheikh.

Shiekh said that to minimise casualties the SDF will advance on the ground, with the US-led coalition providing air support. He said IS fighters have been surrendering themselves daily and that no SDF prisoners remained after the extremists freed them over the past weeks.

The battle to completely retake the pocket is likely to take three days, an SDF official, Aras Orkesh, said earlier. He said about 2,500 SDF fighters were prepared for the assault.

The capture of Baghouz would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to defeat the group’ that once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq.

The SDF has been marching toward Baghouz since last September. But the operation has been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians who had been holed up in the pocket, most of them families of IS members who have fled with the group as its once extensive territory shrank.

Over the past few weeks, more than 10,000 civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz, streaming out daily through a corridor arranged by the two sides. But since Friday, only a small group has left.

“Our forces are ready now to start and finish what is left in ISIS’s hand,” Bali, the SDF spokesman, tweeted on Sunday, using another acronym to refer to IS.

A US senior defence official said in Washington on Friday that it would not be a surprise, based on current conditions, if it took another couple of weeks to finish “mopping up” the IS enclave.