U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say they have recaptured 41 positions held by Islamic State militants as they seek to clear the last enclave the militant group controls in eastern Syria.
Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, tweeted Sunday that SDF forces had destroyed fortifications in the Village of Baghuz, but that heavy fighting continued.
"#SDF have advanced on northern and western axis into Baghuz since 19:00 yesterday evening, capturing 41 positions of ISIS and destroying fortifications. IS counterattack was foiled at 4 am this morning. Heavy fighting is going on inside the last village at the moment," he wrote.
After saving more than 20K civilians from IS-held area and ensuring their safety in nearby camps, #SDF started to move on to the last village remaining under jihadists’ control in N. Syria. Village of Baghuz, which is the only remaining #ISIS pocket, will be cleared soon.— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) February 9, 2019
"There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing," an SDF field commander told AFP Sunday.
The SDF, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, is fighting IS in a 4-square-kilometer area that includes Baghuz and is near the Iraqi border.
SDF officials and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated there were about 3,000 battle-hardened IS jihadists, mostly foreigners, in the region. The observatory also estimated several hundred civilians remained in the area as well.
More than 23,000 Syrian civilians and foreign nationals fled eastern Syria this past week as the SDF, which includes Kurdish YPG militia fighters, prepared to move on IS in Deir el-Zour governorate, according to local officials and activists.
The displaced residents, mostly women and children, have been placed in the Kurdish al-Hol camp in al-Hasakah governorate, in northeast Syria.
The administrator of the camp, Nabil Hassan, told VOA that many of the women and children from the new wave of displacement this week were foreign nationals and family members of IS.
SDF began an operation in September to rid Deir el-Zour of IS militants. The U.S.-backed fighters' advance has been slowed by fierce fighting from the IS militants.
The civil war that has engulfed Syria began with Arab Spring protests in 2011. The United Nations estimates more than 400,000 Syrians have died since fighting began in 2011. More than 6 million Syrians have been displaced internally and about 5 million have sought refuge outside the country, with Turkey hosting nearly 3.5 million of them, according to the Brookings Institution.
Rikar Hussein contributed to this report.