US-backed forces bombard last IS group bastion in Syria
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A shroud of black smoke covered the Islamic State group's last Syria redoubt on Monday as US-backed forces battled holdout jihadists after a night of shelling and heavy air strikes.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces have been closing in on IS fighters holed up in a small sliver of territory in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria since January.
A cluster of rudimentary tents and vehicles is all that remains of the once-sprawling "caliphate" declared across large swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014.
Tens of thousands of men, women and children have poured out of the small farming village in recent weeks, slowing down an SDF offensive aimed at crushing the last vestige of the jihadist proto-state.
Backed by air strikes by the US-led coalition, the SDF pummelled the IS pocket with shelling on Sunday night, pushing deeper into the jihadist encampment.
Ground battles and artillery attacks continued on Monday morning as the Kurdish-led force worked to consolidate its most recent gains, SDF spokesman Jiaker Amed told AFP.
"Our forces have advanced but clashes have been ongoing since last night," he said.
On a hilltop overlooking the bombed-out bastion, an AFP correspondent heard the sound of gunfire and heavy shelling ring out.
Men, believed to be jihadists, could be seen shuffling inside the redoubt, beneath a plume of smoke that obscured most of the encampment.
Crouching behind rocks, SDF fighters opened fire at IS fighters that appeared near the banks of the Euphrates River.
"The SDF ground offensive has been very effective," coalition spokesman Sean Ryan told AFP on Monday.
"The SDF continues to pursue a deliberate, methodical approach to removing the last remaining territory under Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
An SDF official who asked not to be named told AFP on Monday that his force has seized a cluster of buildings from jihadists in the latest bout of fighting.
SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali on Sunday night said his force captured "several positions" inside the pocket. "SDF is now holding positions inside the camp," he said on Twitter.
It remains unclear exactly how many people remain inside the last IS pocket but SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel on Sunday said that those quitting the area put the number at up to 5,000 people.
The Kurd-led force has also shied away from giving a timeline for the operation but Gabriel said that he hopes it would not take more than a week before jihadists are flushed out.
At an SDF outpost inside Baghouz on Sunday night, an AFP correspondent saw Kurdish fighters launching artillery shells towards IS positions from a nearby rooftop.
Shelling and coalition air strikes engulfed the area in a crimson blaze. After a momentary lull, the crackle of gunfire filled the air.
"They have started to respond," said one SDF fighter, referring to jihadists. "They will resist... these are their bullets."
An SDF fighter told AFP on Monday that 15 people, including two women from Turkey and Somalia, fled the camp towards SDF-held territory on Sunday, shortly before fighting erupted.
More than 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have quit the last IS redoubt since January 9, according to the SDF.
They include 37,000 civilians, 5,000 jihadists and around 24,000 of their relatives.
An additional 520 IS fighters have been captured in special operations by the SDF.
The huge numbers have flummoxed Kurdish forces who are struggling to accomodate jihadists in Kurdish-run detention centres further north.
The exodus of civilians and relatives of fighters has also sparked a humanitarian crisis in Kurdish-run camps for the displaced, the biggest of which is overcrowded three times beyond capacity.
The total capture of Baghouz by the SDF would mark the end of the cross-border "caliphate" it proclaimed more than four years ago.
But IS still retains a presence in eastern Syria's vast Badia desert and has sleeper cells in the northeast.
Baghouz is the latest front in the Syrian war that has killed 370,000 people since it started in 2011.