BAGHOUZ, Syria — U.S.-backed Syrian fighters are searching tunnels a day after seizing most of the last pocket of land held by Islamic State militants, an official said Wednesday.
The long-running battle to retake the last outpost held by ISIS in eastern Syria appeared to have reached its conclusion, with no signs of battle Wednesday, although officials said a few remaining ISIS militants still had not surrendered.
Ciyager Amed, an official with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said they were searching for any ISIS militants hiding in tunnels in a riverside pocket in the village of Baghouz. The SDF held back on announcing victory over ISIS.
It is the most primitive and close combat a fighter may face. Welcome to the subterranean.
Associated Press journalists saw SDF soldiers loading women and children into trailer trucks on the hilltop over Baghouz, in a sign evacuations were ongoing Wednesday. Black smoke could be seen rising from the village.
The SDF on Tuesday seized control of the encampment held by ISIS after hundreds of militants surrendered overnight, signaling the group’s collapse after months of stiff resistance. Fighters celebrated after months of grueling battles and an on-again off-again offensive that saw thousands of people, many of them women and children, evacuated from the pocket.
The militants have been putting up a desperate fight, their notorious propaganda machine working even on the brink of collapse.
The complete fall of Baghouz would mark the end of the Islamic State group’s self-declared caliphate, which at its height stretched across large parts of Syria and Iraq. For the past four years, U.S.-led forces have waged a destructive campaign against the group. But even after Baghouz’s fall, ISIS maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells that threaten a continuing insurgency.
Syria’s defense minister on Monday slammed what he called the “illegitimate” U.S. military presence in his country, vowing that Damascus has a right to self-defense, while Iraq said a border crossing with Syria will open in the coming days.
The battle for Baghouz has dragged on for weeks and the encampment had proven a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.
The siege has also been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghouz, most of them families of ISIS members. Over past weeks they have been flowing out, exhausted, hungry and often wounded. The sheer number who emerged — nearly 30,000 since early January, according to Kurdish officials — took the SDF by surprise.