On edge of last IS redoubt, dying 'caliphate' on full display


Baghouz (Syria) (AFP)

The black flag of the Islamic State group flutters above a bullet-scarred building. Women covered head-to-toe stroll below, as bearded men zip on motorbikes down dirt roads strewn with debris.

Pushed flush along a bend in the Euphrates River, this scrap of a desert hamlet in eastern Syria is the only territory the jihadists have left.

"We're a few dozen metres away from them," said Ahmad al-Siyyan, a fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces, raising a pair of binoculars for a better look

"This is the closest point we control," he told AFP journalists on the front line during a fragile ceasefire.

The 24-year-old motioned towards three men dressed in khaki tunics walking through an end-of-days mass of tattered tents and cloth-covered trenches.

"This is the Baghouz camp," he said.

The Kurdish-led fighters pushed into the ragged tent encampment some 10 days ago as they and their US-led coalition backers pounded the jihadists, but they soon paused to allow more civilians to leave.

The no-man's land between the SDF and the jihadists is filled with abandoned cars, shreds of clothing and holes dug by IS fighters and civilians for shelter.

The charred and twisted remains of a truck's freight trailer lie on the ground.

Once an IS ammunition cache, it was hit during the most recent spurt of fighting, sending a pillar of black smoke jutting into the sky for days.

"When the sun comes up, civilians come towards us... but (IS) snipers fire on them to force them back," Siyyan said.

A fragile ceasefire has held since the last round of fighting, as the SDF continues its push to clear the redoubt of non-combatants.

"We've managed to pull some civilians out of the camp," he added.

"Today, an Emirati (fighter) tried to sneak up on us, but we managed to capture him."

The US-backed fighters have been hoping for weeks that the final day has come for IS's "caliphate".

Tens of thousands of women, children, and men have streamed out of the besieged bastion since December.

Thousands more poured out after last week's fighting, upending assumptions that few families remained holed up in the area.

- Pots, pans, explosive belts -

Black smoke billows into the air from an IS-held area of the camp where SDF fighters say jihadists sometimes burn tyres.

Sporadic bursts of gunfire echo across the flat dusty terrain, punctuated by a singular roaring explosion.

The ground floor of the pockmarked building serving as the SDF front line position is strewn with syringes and packs of medicine -- remnants of a jihadist field hospital.

Spent ammunition of all sizes lie between zig-zagging trenches, scorched pots and pans and scraps of clothes left behind.

The SDF worry the area has been littered with mines left by the jihadists, who have routinely planted explosives and dispatched car bombs to halt advancing forces.

"Everywhere we go we find two or three explosive belts," said SDF member Shevan al-Hasakeh, adding there is a real fear that "most of the fighters left would be using them".

"In this area I've personally seen 10 to 15 -- all different sizes," he added.

Inside one makeshift tent, a wood stove topped with metal cookware sits on the lip of a metre-deep trench lined with mattresses and blankets.

Flies buzz above the discarded detritus of everyday life. An infant's blue sweater, an overturned baby stroller, a crushed pair of glasses.

"They were stashing weapons here," said one fighter, gesturing towards a trench lined with a singed carpet.

He said the SDF also found stores of ammunition and the bodies of dead jihadists.

With jets from the US-led coalition rumbling overhead, two young SDF fighters fiddle with the scope on a sniper rifle, joking easily between each other before falling into song for a faraway sweetheart.

"If my heart wanes, how will I embrace you," the two belt out, their comrades looking on with broad smiles.

They have all fought for years against IS, losing friends and family along the way.

But with hopes high that the end of the long battle is near, the mood among those surrounding the holdout jihadists is triumphant.

"They only have the camp, they've lost," said Hasakeh.

"The battle is settled... It's a fait accompli."