Islamic State suicide bombers thwarted in final battle for Baghouz, says SDF
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia said it thwarted several attempted Islamic State group (IS) suicide bomb attacks on Wednesday during a last-stand battle for Baghouz, the group's final enclave in eastern Syria.
Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, said its forces had been bombarding Baghouz heavily overnight before engaging in direct clashes with IS fighters from 4am to 6am local time.
Live footage broadcast by the Kurdish Ronahi TV overnight showed a series of large explosions lighting up the night sky over Baghouz.
"There were suicide vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces," Bali told the Reuters news agency.
"Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions."
An SDF official told AFP that IS fighters "launched two counterattacks today - one in the morning and another in the afternoon".
"The second one was much stronger" and was launched under the cover of smoke caused by bombing, he said.
The official said IS was using suicide bombers but his force intercepted them before they reached their target. They "made no progress and they were stopped," he said.
The SDF said on Tuesday that the battle for Baghouz, a collection of hamlets and farmland near the Iraqi border, was as good as over.
The enclave is the last area of populated territory held by IS, whose militants over the past four years have been driven from roughly one-third of Iraq and Syria they had controlled.
The SDF has laid siege to Baghouz for weeks but had repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters, to leave.
The number of people remaining in the enclave has perplexed the US-led coalition battling IS, with previous estimates far lower than the numbers now emerging.
The SDF resumed the attack on Sunday.
Inside Baghouz, the crackle and thud of gunfire and shelling rang out from the encampment as plumes of thick black smoke rose over the bombed-out IS bastion, AFP reported.
Amid the rubble, three SDF fighters lobbed a salvo of mortar shells towards the IS pocket, hours after the IS counterattack at daybreak under the cover of a dust storm.
On a rooftop near the front line, an AFP correspondent saw a warplane fire two missiles at IS positions.
Delil, an SDF fighter, said: "Today, the sandstorm is to their benefit but all coming days are ours."
Around 3,000 fighters and their families surrendered to SDF forces in 24 hours, Bali said overnight.
Three Yazidi women and four children who were kidnapped and enslaved by IS in 2014 were also freed, he said.
"The battle is ongoing and the final hour is now closer than ever," Bali wrote on Twitter.
Outside Baghouz on Wednesday, dozens of evacuees sat in clusters on a field dotted with yellow flowers, a day after thousands of the last survivors of the "caliphate" handed themselves over to US-backed forces.
But an SDF official said on Wednesday that "it appears as though many fighters remain inside" Baghouz.
While Baghouz is the last populated territory of what was once the group's self-proclaimed "caliphate", fighters still operate elsewhere.
'The battles are not over'
IS put out a video overnight Monday filmed in recent weeks inside Baghouz, calling on its supporters to keep the faith.
"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 via IS social media channels.
"The battles are not over," said the man, 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.
The bulk of the people evacuated from the diminishing IS 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 Organisation on Tuesday told Reuters that 106 people, mainly infants, have died since December on the journey to al-Hol, which takes at least six hours from Baghouz.