The US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces were locked in fierce fighting on Sunday in their final push to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in the last pocket it holds in eastern Syria.
The group overran large parts of the country and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but various military offensives have since reduced that territory to a patch on the Iraqi border.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by a US-led coalition, announced a final push to retake the pocket in the village of Baghouz late on Saturday.
The announcement came after a pause of more than a week to allow some 20,000 civilians to flee, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.
An SDF field commander said the fighting was ongoing on Sunday morning.
“There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing,” he told the AFP news agency.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitor, said coalition planes and artillery bombarded ISIL positions.
“The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off,” said SOHR head Rami Abdel Rahman.
Backed by air raids by the US-led coalition against the ISIL, the Kurdish-Arab alliance has in recent months cornered the remaining ISIL fighters in a final patch of territory in the eastern province of Deir Az Zor.
The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down the ISIL-held territory to a scrap of just 4sq km on the eastern banks of the Euphrates.
Up to 600 fighters could still remain inside, most of them foreigners, according to Bali.
On Saturday, Bali said he expected the battle for the last patch of territory held by the ISIL to be over in days.
The group, however, retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert, and has claimed a series of deadly attacks by sleeper cells in SDF-held areas.
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump had predicted the ISIL would lose all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria by “next week”.
In December, Trump had announced the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria in a surprise move, saying the ISIL had been defeated.
Syria’s Kurds have largely stayed out of the country’s civil war, instead building semi-autonomous institutions in northern and northeastern regions they control.
While the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been a key US ally in the fight against the ISIL, Turkey views them as “terrorists”.
The SDF-held areas make up a third of the whole country, and Damascus has repeatedly said it would eventually see them revert to the government control.