ISIS faced imminent defeat in its final enclave on Tuesday as hundreds of extremists and their families surrendered and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said the battle was as good as over.
The besieged enclave of Baghouz is the last shred of territory held by the extremists who have been driven from roughly one-third of Iraq and Syria over the past four years.
A Reuters journalist in Baghouz saw hundreds of people surrendering to the SDF, which launched its final attack to capture Baghouz on Sunday, backed by US-led international coalition air strikes and after weeks of siege.
SDF official Mustafa Bali said a large group of ISIS fighters and their families had surrendered en masse.
“Once our forces confirm that everyone who wants to surrender has done so, ... the clashes will resume,” he said. The extremists’ defeat was very near, he said.
ALSO READ: US-backed SDF says 38 ISIS fighters killed in Syria enclave
The Baghouz enclave was pounded overnight with barrages of rockets and fires raged inside, but the situation was calm on Tuesday morning.
“The operation is over, or as good as over, but requires a little more time to be completed practically on the ground,” SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told al-Hadath TV.
The SDF has been laying siege to Baghouz for weeks but repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow the evacuation of thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of ISIS fighters. It finally resumed the attack on Sunday, backed by coalition air strikes.
Gabriel said 25 ISIS extremists had been confirmed killed so far in clashes, in addition to an unknown number of extremists killed by air strikes.
The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has been advancing slowly into Baghouz to minimize its losses from sniper fire and landmines.
ISIS’s defenses include extensive tunnels. The extremist group’s most hardened foreign fighters are holed up inside the enclave, the SDF has said.
While Baghouz is the last populated territory of what was once the group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate”, extremists still operate in remote areas elsewhere. It is widely assessed that they will continue to represent a potent security threat.
The bulk of the people evacuated from the diminishing ISIS territory have been transported to a camp for internally displaced people in al-Hol, in northeastern Syria, where the United Nations says conditions are dire.
The camp, designed to accommodate 20,000 people, is now sheltering more than 66,000.
The World Health Organization on Tuesday said 106 people, mainly infants, have died since December on the journey to al-Hol, which takes at least six hours.