- Associated Press - Monday, March 11, 2019

BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian forces made slow advances into the edge 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 ISIS ammunition dump.

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

Some 500 ISIS 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.

Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led SDF 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 minds 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 ISIS 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 ISIS 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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