BAGHUZ, SYRIA / WASHINGTON, U.S.-backed forces are closing in on Islamic State fighters in their last stronghold in eastern Syria.

Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led anti-IS coalition, said Monday they have recaptured more territory around the town of Baghuz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour.

“We have captured a radius of about 500 meters, and our fighters are advancing into the city,” an SDF commander told VOA from the battlefield.

“All civilians have already left this part of Baghuz. There are only IS fighters inside the town,” he added.

U.S. officials say IS fighters in the town have been surrounded from all sides.

“The enemy is putting up a tough fight with a lot of foreign fighters with nowhere to go,” coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said. “The weather has not been great, which slows progress, and the SDF has to back clear the areas, as well. So, hopefully this month.”

Baghuz is the last stronghold for the terror group in eastern Syria. The anti-IS campaign has cleared nearly all territory once held by IS in Syria since 2014.

The U.S.-led coalition is providing air and artillery support as SDF fighters continue to advance for the second consecutive day.

“The U.S. air support is very helpful in this offensive. It will also help us take over the remaining territory within days,” said an SDF fighter, who is participating in the battle and did not want to be identified for security reasons.

The remaining IS fighters have no intention of surrendering, local sources said.

“I don’t think the battle will be over in a few days as many are predicting,” said Ivan Hasib, a Syrian reporter who is embedded with the SDF in Baghuz.

“It will take at least two weeks before ISIS fighters are cleared,” he said using an acronym for Islamic State.

Hasib added that “last week, [IS] refused an offer to surrender, which means that they have chosen to fight to the death. This has become more obvious in the past two days, as they are intensifying suicide attacks against SDF.”

Surprise attacks

Local military officials say IS relies on surprise attacks in a bid to slow the SDF offensive.

“This morning, [IS] terrorists attempted to wage surprise attacks in order to prolong the battle. But our forces and the U.S.-led coalition are present everywhere in the vicinity,” Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, told VOA on Monday.

There are also concerns that IS militants are using civilians as human shields to hamper the progress of U.S.-backed forces into the city.

“The only thing that slows our advance is the presence of civilians. So far, 35,000 people have fled Baghuz. Just today, 1,500 civilians left the city. There are still large numbers of civilians stranded inside Baghuz. This is a real challenge for us,” Bali said.

Source: Voice of America

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