BEIRUT (Reuters) – Kurdish-led fighters battling to capture Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Syria are making “slow and methodical” progress, the U.S.-led coalition backing them said on Tuesday.
“The enemy is fully entrenched and ISIS fighters continue to conduct counter attacks,” coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said in an email, adding it was “too early for a timetable” on when the operation might end.
Baghouz, a village on the east bank of the Euphrates at Syria’s border with Iraq, is Islamic State’s last territorial foothold in the U.S.-led coalition’s area of operations.
However, the jihadists still hold land in central Syria in a remote desert area otherwise controlled by the government. In places it lost in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State was able to go to ground and has carried out deadly guerrilla attacks.
Even after Baghouz is captured, there will have to be clearing operations to rid the village of explosive booby traps left by Islamic State to kill civilians, Ryan said.
The battle is being waged by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, which has seized about a quarter of the country, mostly through the U.S.-backed offensive against Islamic State.
On Monday, columns of white smoke from coalition air strikes were visible and trucks crammed with fleeing civilians drove along a dusty track out of the enclave, a Reuters witness said.
Coalition air power, crucial to the SDF’s advances, has leveled entire districts of towns and cities in the fight against Islamic State, though it says it takes care to avoid hitting civilians.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 70 civilians had been killed and wounded by air strikes that it said struck a camp for civilians in Baghouz, and that 16 civilians were killed in strikes overnight.
In letters to the United Nations, Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned U.S.-led strikes that it said killed 16 civilians in a camp in Baghouz including women and children.
“Syria calls on the (U.N.) Security Council again to stop these crimes…and end the aggressive, illegitimate presence of American and other foreign forces,” the ministry said.
Ryan said the coalition was aware of the report and was looking into it. “The coalition continues to strike at ISIS targets whenever available,” he said.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Monday many civilians remained in Baghouz, compelling the fighters to proceed cautiously. The SDF believes 400-600 jihadists may still be dug in there.
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