FILE - Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces are seen in Deir el-Zour, Syria May 1, 2018.
FILE - Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces are seen in Deir el-Zour, Syria May 1, 2018.

Fierce fighting is ongoing in eastern Syria as U.S.-backed Syrian fighters are trying to advance against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in its last major stronghold in the country.

Thousands of fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led alliance, have been pushing into the town of Hajin in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) in Deir el-Zour province, according to U.S. and local military officials.

"The progress in MERV is going very well and the coalition is assisting with artillery and air strikes," Colonel Sean Ryan, Spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against IS, told VOA.

"The SDF continues to advance into the center of Hajin city and to the outskirts. ISIS still poses a threat and are using small pockets of fighters to counter SDF offensives and emplacing IED's to slow progress," he said, using an acronym for the terror group.

Ryan added that "the end of days for ISIS in the MERV is getting closer to reality, however, they still have the capability for coordinated attacks."
SDF reaction

SDF officials said Wednesday it will take a while before they can declare Hajin liberated from IS.

"We have so far liberated more than 60 percent of Hajin from [IS] terrorists," Mustafa Bali, head of the media center at SDF, told VOA.
"It's still early to say when the town will entirely be cleared of the group as there are many tunnels and areas that must to be combed. There are also many [IS] militants still hiding among civilians," he added.

Bali said "coalition airstrikes have been crucial at this point as we advance against Daesh," using an Arabic acronym for IS.

IS preparing

Ekrem Salih, a local reporter who is embedded with the U.S.-backed SDF in Hajin, said Islamic State fighters have been preparing for this battle for a long time.

"This is a very tough fight because IS's elite fighting force is in Hajin. So they will fight in Hajin until the last breath," he told VOA.

Salih said IS fighters have left behind a large amount of landmines in areas liberated in recent days.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, had said earlier Wednesday that SDF fighters had taken Hajin from IS, but SDF officials told VOA that there were still many IS fighters in the town and that fighting was still ongoing.

The continued battle for Hajin is part of the Operation Roundup, which began in May to defeat IS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and Iraq-Syria border region. The military operation is supported by the U.S-led coalition.

Local military officials said that once Hajin is completely liberated, the operation will move on to several nearby villages, including Sosa and Shifa'a, that are still under IS control.