In smouldering last redoubt, IS hide among the reeds

Baghouz (Syria) (AFP) –


An air strike pounds a demolished bridge in eastern Syria, sending armed men scampering to hide among the cars and tents of the Islamic State group's smouldering last redoubt.

On the eastern banks of the Euphrates River, the suspected jihadists slip out of sight as US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces watch them from a nearby hilltop.

The river flows past the battlefield in the farming hamlet of Baghouz, its surface only pierced from time to time by a stray artillery shell.

Fighting has flared since Sunday night between the jihadists and advancing SDF fighters backed by air strikes of a US-led coalition.

On the hill overlooking the scorched IS redoubt, a flag of the Kurdish forces spearheading the SDF flaps in the breeze.

Some SDF fighters crouch alert behind their weapons, while others track the jihadists through binoculars or with the naked eye.

"There, over there," one of them suddenly shouts in Kurdish to his fellow fighters. "Near the tree next to the bridge."

A fighter named Sharfan unleashes a torrent of fire from his machinegun, until he receives further instructions.

"Look! They're hiding in the reeds by the river," cries another fighter.

When their ammunition belts are spent, they open up small boxes, pulling new strings of bullets out to replace them.

Nearby, another fighter sits in the back of a truck, manning a heavy machinegun, while puffing out cigarette smoke.

- 'End is near' -

Two fighters lug heavy wooden boxes filled with mortar rounds, then help each other carry out each missile.

One sends a shell whizzing off towards the embattled jihadist encampment, then the other peers over the ridge to check it reached its target.

A field commander with a green scarf wrapped around his head says the clashes have been ongoing since dawn.

"After we surrounded them, they responded by attacking our forces. We're now using all kinds of weapons against them," says the fighter, presenting himself as Hiwa.

"Their end is near," he adds.

"Many of them have been killed, and many more have been wounded."

The crackle and thud of heavy clashes ring out from several directions, as the SDF strive to tighten the noose around jihadists constantly dropping out of sight.

"As soon as we aim at them, we see them run. And suddenly they vanish into thin air, as if they were hiding underground," one fighter told AFP.

Thousands of women, children and men -- including suspected fighters -- have streamed out of the jihadist pocket in recent weeks, hampering an advance by US-backed forces.

The SDF have been astonished by seemingly endless numbers -- mostly IS family members, and many foreigners -- emerging from the battered riverside camp.

- 'Stop! Children!'-

But from their hilltop, Kurdish-led fighters can still see figures dressed in the long black robes of women, moving around or running away from incoming fire.

In recent days, many US-backed fighters have said women are taking part in the fighting.

On the hilltop, the SDF machineguns are spluttering bullets down on the camp, when a fellow fighter abruptly cries out.

"Stop, stop! There are children, let them pass."

Field commander Hiwa says women and children -- usually IS family members -- signal their presence as they move to the edge of the camp.

"We see them hold their hands up in our direction," he says.

Clouds of thick grey smoke rise up sideways from positions all over the sprawling of sea of canvas and abandoned cars -- one ablaze, others scorched through.

In Baghouz, holdout jihadists are surrounded by the SDF on three sides, their backs against the water.

On the opposite shore, among the green fields dotted with clusters of houses, there are Russia-backed regime forces who have also fought them.

"Whatever happens, the IS fighters are completely surrounded," Hiwa says.

"They're trapped in the middle... They can either be killed, or surrender."