Assault on Baghouz 'basically over' but IS remains defiant
BAGHOUZ - Islamic State was close to defeat in its final enclave on Tuesday after ferocious bombardments overnight and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the offensive to capture the area was nearly over.
The beseiged enclave of Baghouz is the last shred of territory held by the jihadists who have been driven from roughly one third of Iraq and Syria over the past four years by its enemies, including a US-led international coalition.
"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. Islamic State was still putting up resistance with weapons including car bombs.
The Baghouz enclave was targeted with barrages of rockets overnight and fires raged inside, but the bombardments ceased on Tuesday morning.
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 Islamic State fighters. It finally resumed the attack on Sunday, backed by coalition air strikes.
It said its forces were moving in as they had not observed any civilians inside, but a special unit was in charge of evacuating any non-combatants they encountered.
Gabriel said 25 Islamic State fighters had been confirmed killed so far in clashes, in addition to an unknown number of militants killed by air strikes. Another SDF official earlier said 38 jihadists had been confirmed killed.
The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has been advancing slowly into Baghouz to minimise its losses from sniper fire and landmines.
Three SDF fighters have been killed, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said on Twitter.
Islamic State's defences include extensive tunnels and Islamic State's most hardened foreign fighters are holed up inside the enclave, the SDF has said.
However the United States does not believe any senior Islamic State leaders are in Baghouz, assessing they have gone elsewhere as part of the group's shift towards an insurgency, a US defence official has said.
'What is our crime?'
The group released a video allegedly showing those holed-up jihadists who put on an air of quiet defiance in the face of advancing SDF forces.
"If we had thousands of kilometres and now we only have some kilometres left, it is said we have lost -- but God's judging standard is different," said a man named Abu Abdel Adheem, in the video published late Monday via IS social media channels.
"The battles are not over," said the jihadist, his head covered with a white and red scarf, sitting on the ground in a circle with two men and a young boy in a hooded jacket.
His companions repeatedly lifted cutlery to their blurred out faces, spooning clear liquid from a saucepan behind them.
A figure draped in the all-covering black robes worn by women under the jihadists' rule watched them briefly then slowly ambled off, as an explosion was heard in the background.
"What is our crime? We only wanted to implement the law of God," said the man.
"Why have all the infidel countries of the world gathered to fight us? Why are we besieged and why are we being bombarded day and night?"
The IS video could not be immediately authenticated, but what is visible of the background is consistent with what reporters have seen of the IS redoubt.
The video, dated by its publishers with an Islamic month that started on Friday, showed dozens of men and boys on the edges of a busy road.
By its side, blankets had been thrown over rudimentary frames to make makeshift tents amid a mass of canvas and vehicles, with palm trees jutting out in the distance.
Drone footage showed shelters, a few buildings and a road filled with people.
Another man in the video named as Abu Abdel Aziz said pamphets were falling on the redoubt.
"The disbelievers are throwing pamphlets at us and mocking us," he said.
"They tell us, 'You're hungry while your amirs live in comfort and eat,'" he said, referring to IS leaders.
A fellow jihadist presented as Abu Abdel Rahman, wearing a black and white scarf over a white skull cap, asked what had warranted the fight against them.
"What is this so-called terrorism they are accusing us of?" the bespeckled man asked.
"Even in this narrow patch you find the law of God."
IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a "caliphate" and imposing their brutal interpretation of Islam on millions.
The jihadists have been accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, carrying out mass executions, taking women as sex slaves, and meting out bloody punishments against anyone who disobeyed their rule.
They have since lost all their territory to various offensives in both Syria and Iraq, except for their last encampment in Baghouz; but the group still operates in remote territory elsewhere and it is widely assessed that it will continue to represent a potent security threat.
The bulk of the people evacuated from the diminishing Islamic State 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 UN said.
Obdurate support voiced by many evacuees for Islamic State, particularly among foreigners, has posed a complex security, legal and moral challenge.
Those issues were underscored on Friday with the death of the newborn son of Shamima Begum, a British woman who left to join Islamic State when she was a schoolgirl.