Coalition warplanes hit last ISIS enclave in eastern Syria
Sniper fire, mines and tunnels slow attempted capture of village held by militants
U.S.-led coalition warplanes struck the last ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria and hundreds of civilians fled the besieged enclave Monday as U.S.-backed fighters pressed on with their campaign to seize it.
Coalition jets roared overhead as columns of white smoke rose from the ISIS-held Baghouz area a short distance from the Iraqi border.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have driven ISIS from swaths of northern and eastern Syria with U.S.-led coalition support, launched an offensive Saturday to capture the enclave in Deir al-Zor province.
The exact number of ISIS fighters still holding out in the sliver of territory is unknown but it's estimated to be in the hundreds, and most are believed to be foreign fighters. It is also unclear if civilians are still inside, caught under heavy bombardment.
The jihadists are putting up stiff resistance and had sought to counterattack again on Monday morning, according to Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office. Around 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, he said.
SDF combatants watched as a column of at least 17 trucks filled with men, women and children left Baghouz along a dusty track into SDF-held territory. Women and children were crammed into the back of one of the trucks.
Some of those fleeing identified themselves as Iraqis.
"It seems there are still many civilians inside Baghouz," Bali said. "We are compelled to go cautiously and accurately in this battle."
On the outskirts of Baghouz, the people who had left stood in lines to be questioned by coalition and SDF forces apparently trying to identify whether any were jihadists.
Ahead of launching the attack, the SDF said more than 20,000 civilians had left Baghouz in the preceding 10 days.
The SDF believes 400 to 600 jihadists may be holed up there, including foreigners and other hardened militants.
ISIS attempted to redraw the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large tracts of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes — the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq's Mosul — fell in 2017.
The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province after capturing Raqqa. Their operations have been focused in areas east of the Euphrates River.
To the west of the Euphrates, in territory otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies, ISIS retains a foothold in mountainous terrain.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against ISIS there was almost won.
The top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday that the U.S. is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal.
ISIS is still widely seen as a threat, however.
Assad Bechara, a Lebanese political analyst, said ISIS is an ideology, not just a military structure, and it cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory from the group.
"This (U.S.) pullout will leave a huge vacuum despite the allegations of defeating the last pockets of ISIS. This vacuum will increase the international and regional struggle for power and influence in Syria," he said, which in turn may make it easier for the militant group to return.
A top U.S. general said last week ISIS would be an enduring menace following the U.S. withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel further insurgency.
Italian freelance photographer Gabriele Micalizzi was wounded on Monday while covering the battles, Italian media reported. The reports said Micalizzi was badly hurt but had not suffered life-threatening injuries and was being flown to Baghdad where he would be evacuated to Italy.
On Monday, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 13 ISIS militants, including five suicide attackers as well as six SDF fighters, were killed.
The group said the push by the Kurdish-led SDF has been slow due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists' use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. ISIS is also using civilians as human shields, the group said.
With files from The Associated Press