ISIS fighters pinned on Syrian riverbank outside Baghouz as their opponents celebrate
'I'm happy it's over. Now I know my people are safe,' says one Syrian Democratic Forces fighter
Warplanes flew near Baghouz in eastern Syria early on Wednesday as the final remnants of ISIS-held a narrow strip of land along the Euphrates in a last-ditch defence of its dwindling territory.
Defeat there would signal the end of the ultra-hardline Islamist movement's control in eastern Syria, having held more than a third of Syria and Iraq at one point in 2014 as it sought to carve out a huge caliphate in the region.
On Tuesday, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had driven the remaining ISIS fighters in the town of Baghouz from a makeshift encampment that had represented most of its remaining territory.
Despite spokesman Mustafa Bali cautioning that "this is not a victory announcement", fighters from the force were starting to celebrate.
"I'm happy it's over. Now I know my people are safe," said a fighter who identified himself as Walid Raqqawi who fought in the camp on Monday night. He said he will return now to his hometown of Raqqa to rest. Comrades from his unit sang and danced in celebration at an outpost in Baghouz on Tuesday, all saying they were looking forward to going home.
“We fired on them with our rifles and heavy weapons and they didn’t shoot back. So we walked into the camp and they didn’t shoot at us,” said Orhan Hamad, from the northern province of Hassakeh.
“I tell the martyrs, it wasn’t for nothing. With God’s permission, we’ve finished Daesh.”
Meanwhile, at least some ISIS fighters seem determined to fight to the end. A video released on ISIS social media channels on Monday showed bearded fighters in military fatigues firing machine guns as heavy winds swept through their crammed encampment.
The crackle of gunfire filled the air, as they shuffled between rudimentary tents and mangled vehicles, some of them hobbling on crutches, as they waged artillery attacks.
"My Muslim brothers everywhere, we have given everything we have," said one fighter in the video.
While the capture of Baghouz, close to the Iraqi border, will mark a significant milestone in Syria's eight-year war and in the battle against the extremist group, ISIS remains a threat.
Some of the group's fighters are still holed up in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraqi cities to wage an insurgent campaign to destabilise the government.
Mr Bali said late on Tuesday that clashes with the militants at the Euphrates were continuing "in several pockets".
Another SDF spokesman Jiaker Amed said on Tuesday at least 1,000 ISIS supporters, including hundreds of militants and their relatives, had surrendered since late on Monday.
Thousands of people who have streamed out of the last ISIS stronghold now fill overcrowded camps and prisons run by the Kurds further north.
The 70,000 people crammed into the biggest camp – Al Hol – include more than 40,000 children, of dozens of different nationalities.
SDF fighters began to search tunnels underneath the encampment recaptured this week.
Ciyager Amed, an official with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said they were searching for any militants hiding in tunnels in a riverside pocket in the village of Baghouz.
SDF soldiers loaded women and children into trailer trucks on the hilltop over Baghouz, in a sign that evacuations were ongoing on Wednesday. Black smoke could be seen rising from the village.
Updated: March 20, 2019 09:08 PM