Islamic State fighters launched new counterattacks against U.S.-backed forces Wednesday, as the militants clung to the terror group's last scrap of territory in northeastern Syria.
An unknown number of IS fighters have been hiding in a small area by the town of Baghuz covered now by bullet-ravaged campsites and broken buildings. But officials with both the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces say they have been taking cover from airstrikes and artillery fire in a complex system of caves and tunnels below ground.
"Daesh (IS) carried out two counterattacks with heavy weapons, snipers, VBIED's [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices] and suicide bombers," Zana Amedi, a media official with the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been supporting the SDF, tweeted Wednesday.
"They're taking advantage of the smoke end [sic] dust," he added.
The SDF press office told the Reuters news agency both attacks had been repelled.
Earlier Wednesday, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told Reuters that IS had tried using a group of suicide bombers to blunt the SDF's advance into the IS-held enclave, but failed.
"There were suicide vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces," he said. "Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions."
Prior to the latest IS counterattacks, Syrian Democratic Force officials had been voicing optimism in recent days that the battle against IS was nearing an end.
"The operation is over, or as good as over, but requires a little more time to be completed practically," SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told al-Hadath TV on Tuesday.
But despite a continual bombardment by both coalition aircraft and artillery positions on the ground, at least some of the terror group's fighters have refused to give in.
The #Coalition continues to conduct strikes to defeat Daesh, day or night, and no freedom of movement for the enemy. Combined with the #SDF ground movement, the final push in Baghuz continues. Great pics by #AFP pic.twitter.com/YSVwvFOj1Z— OIR Spokesperson (@OIRSpox) March 13, 2019
In an audio recording posted online Sunday, an IS fighter claiming to be in Baghuz called on other followers to find inspiration in the fight and take action.
"My brothers in Europe and in the whole world ... be fierce and hard on the crusaders," the fighter said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. "Kill them and displace them in revenge for your religion and your dignity."
In a video, likely recorded in February in Baghuz, another fighter says death would be a "victory" for the last of the IS defenders as they never lost their faith.
Still, the SDF said about 3,000 people, almost all IS fighters and their families, evacuated Baghuz on Tuesday, some leaving even as the fighting raged.
Officials also reported that three Yazidi women and four Yazidi children were rescued by SDF troops as they moved into part of Baghuz abandoned by IS fighters during the battle.
As the #SDF continue the final push against whatever remains of so called caliphate, jihadists are surrendering en masse since yesterday. Between 1.500 to 2.000 fighters and their families surrendered to our forces within 24 hours. pic.twitter.com/hLoSzUbkvM— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) March 12, 2019
The SDF launched its final assault on the IS enclave late Sunday after pausing operations for nearly a week to allow more than 20,000 civilians, many related to IS fighters, to evacuate Baghuz for displaced persons camps. Hundreds of fighters also surrendered.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, warned U.S. lawmakers last week the evacuations were not a surrender, but a "calculated decision" and part of a strategy to allow the terror group to complete its transition to a clandestine insurgency.
Despite losing administrative control over almost all the land it once held in Syria and Iraq, U.S. defense officials caution IS still has "tens of thousands" of fighters working either as part of sleeper cells or as part of an active, clandestine insurgency.
A series of reports issued starting last year warned IS could have as many as 30,000 followers and fighters in Syria and Iraq, with officials cautioning they remain "well-positioned" to rebuild a physical caliphate.
Information from Reuters was used in this report.