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US-backed fighters make slow advance into ISIS pocket in Syria

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are positioned on the front line where Islamic State militants are making their last stand in Baghouz, Syria, Sunday, March 10, 2019.

MAYA ALLERUZZO/AP

By PHILIP ISSA | Associated Press | Published: March 11, 2019

BAGHOUZ, Syria — U.S.-backed Syrian forces made slow advances into the edges of the last village held by the Islamic State group, battling militants holed up in underground tunnels, a spokesman for the force said Monday.

The battle opened Sunday evening with large explosions and mushroom clouds rising into the air over Baghouz, on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, as the Syrian Democratic Forces battered the village with artillery and gunfire, hitting an IS ammunition dump.

On Monday morning, the thuds of renewed artillery and heavy weapons fire could be heard. An airstrike hit the IS-held pocket around noon.

Some 500 IS fighters are believed to be still in the territory, along with possibly 3,000 to 4,000 civilians, including women and children — mainly family members who remained after thousands of civilians streamed out of Baghouz in past week during pauses in the fighting.

SDF fighters captured an arms depot and marched toward the tent settlement on the edge of Baghouz, Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led SDF said in a tweet. He said dozens of IS fighters had been killed, and that one SDF fighter was killed and four wounded.

The U.S.-led coalition carried out 11 airstrikes destroying depots, fortifications and vehicles, and four IS militants blew up explosives vests in attempted suicide attacks on SDF positions, damaging a minesweeper he wrote.

The tent camp had been home for many of the thousands of civilians who had been holed up in Baghouz for weeks. On Monday, an AP team was able to see a part of the camp that had been abandoned earlier. Many tents were damaged and burned, some of them set up over empty trenches and foxholes.

The AP viewed it from a house captured by the SDF that IS appeared to have used as a clinic by IS. Medical equipment stood in place still wrapped in its plastic, as well as a microscope still in its box.

Bali told The Associated Press that the forces were moving cautiously on the ground, adding that the militants were dug in and hiding into tunnels. The area is also believed to be laced with land mines and booby traps.

"If as we advance, we notice there are civilians, we will do all we can to evacuate them from the battlefield," Bali said. He said so far there had been no SDF casualties.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters captured seven IS gunmen in Baghouz since Sunday.

A senior U.S. defense official said in Washington on Friday that it would not be a surprise, based on current conditions, if it took another couple of weeks to finish "mopping up" the IS enclave.

The capture of Baghouz would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to defeat the group's so-called "caliphate" that once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

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