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US-backed Syrian forces push on as ISIS extremists fight back

Published: Updated:

US-backed Syrian forces said on Wednesday that ISIS extremists are putting up a desperate fight against their advances and staged a counterattack overnight from the tiny speck of land the extremists still hold in eastern Syria.

The counterattack began from the west of a riverside pocket in the Syrian village of Baghouz where the ISIS group has been making its last stand, said a commander with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

Clashes were underway as the Kurdish-led forces tried to repel the ISIS attack, he said, adding they were also fighting to secure an area taken late on Tuesday. Another commander said at least four SDF fighters were killed in the fighting since early in the morning. Both commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

A third commander, Dilbrin Nargiz, said the ISIS counterattack began just before dawn. ISIS extremists usually operate in daylight as they lack night vision weapons and goggles.

The weeks-old push on Baghouz has also taken a toll on the Kurdish forces, some of whom have been battling ISIS for the past six years.

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“We’ll die long before this war is over,” said Simone Awad, a 22-year-old fighter whose friend was shot in the head next to him in the fighting earlier in the morning. It was not clear if the friend, who was taken to hospital, survived.

Battle to retake Baghouz

The battle to retake Baghouz and surrounding villages began in September and has since driven the extremists into the tiny sliver of land following intense fighting and major setbacks.

For the last few weeks, the extremists remained holed up in the shrinking space along the eastern banks of the Euphrates River. Since early February, more than 10,000 civilians were evacuated from the ISIS-held pocket, most of them family members of ISIS extremists.

Men suspected of being ISIS extremist fighters arrive at a screening point run by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. (AFP)
Men suspected of being ISIS extremist fighters arrive at a screening point run by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. (AFP)

The capture of Baghouz would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to defeat ISIS’s so-called “caliphate,” which once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq.

The US-led coalition tweeted on Wednesday it was continuing strikes against ISIS positions “day and night,” allowing the extremists no freedom of movement.

“Combined with the SDF ground movement, the final push in (Baghouz) continues,” the coalition said.

A spokesman for the US-backed forces, Adnan Afrin, said ISIS extremists were putting up a “fierce resistance,” firing mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades in clashes that began on Tuesday.

Afrin said his forces are advancing slowly, taking some positions on the edge of a tent encampment where thousands of civilians and extremists had been holed up in recent weeks.

ALSO READ: Trucks prepare to evacuate last civilians from Syrian ISIS enclave - SDF source

“In this small area, for you to make a large advance, you will have to have a lot of casualties,” Afrin told The Associated Press late on Tuesday. “So, to preserve the lives of our fighters and to complete this battle while minimizing losses, we are slowing down our advance for the safety and security of our forces.”

Even as ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate crumbled and the extremists’ territory shrunk, facing a relentless military campaign and hunger, many die-hard ISIS supporters said they still believe in the extremists’ vision of an Islamic land.