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Islamic State faces final territorial defeat in eastern Syria battle

OUTSKIRTS OF BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) - Islamic State faces final territorial defeat as the U.S.-backed Syrian force battling the jihadists said on Saturday it was closing in on the jihadists’ last bastion near the Iraqi border, capping four years of efforts to roll back the group.

While the fall of Baghouz, an eastern Syrian village on the bank of the Euphrates River, would mark a milestone in a global campaign against Islamic State (IS), they remain a threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate land further west.

An array of enemies, both local and international, confronted IS after it declared a modern-day “caliphate” in 2014 across large swathes of territory it had seized in lightning offensives in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

IS lost its twin capitals of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. As its territory shrunk, thousands of fighters, followers and civilians retreated to Baghouz. Over the last few weeks, they have poured out of the tiny cluster of hamlets and farmlands in Deir al-Zor province, holding up the final assault.

On Friday evening, the SDF said the remaining civilians had been removed and it was resuming its assault until the jihadists were defeated.

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“We expect it to be over soon,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Reuters shortly after sunrise as the SDF advanced on two fronts using medium and heavy weaponry.

Yet clashes continued past sunset, with occasional heavy bombing from warplanes that hovered in the sky, the SDF media office said. IS responded with drones and rockets, and seven SDF fighters have been wounded so far, said commander Adnan Afrin.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred IS insurgents - believed mostly to be foreigners - to be still in Baghouz, and the U.S.-led international coalition has described them as the “most hardened” militants.

The SDF’s final advance was slowed for weeks by the jihadists’ extensive use of tunnels and human shields. It has not ruled out the possibility that some militants have crept out, hidden among civilians.

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A spokesman for the coalition, which supports the Kurdish-led SDF, said it was too early to assess the battle’s progress “as it is a complicated situation with many variables”.

Slideshow ( 18 images )

The SDF commander-in-chief said on Thursday that his force would declare victory within a week. He was later contradicted by U.S. President Donald Trump, who said the SDF had retaken 100 percent of the territory once held by IS.

Washington has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to support the SDF in fighting IS. Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them, but the White House partially reversed itself last month, saying some 400 troops would stay.

Some 40,000 people bearing various nationalities have left the jihadists’ diminishing territory in the last three months as the SDF sought to oust the militants from remaining pockets.

The number of evacuees streaming out of Baghouz surpassed initial estimates of how many were inside. Afrin told Reuters on Thursday that many of the people leaving the enclave had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

Among the civilians were scores of children. Some had been conscripted or enslaved by the jihadists, while others were foreigners brought by their parents to be raised under IS rule.

A 27-year-old Indonesian widow who emerged on Friday said she would have liked to stay in IS territory but conceded that conditions had become untenable.

“I have no money, I have no food for my baby, no medicine, nothing for my baby, so I must go out,” she told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Issam Abdullah; Writing by Stephen Kalin and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich and David Evans