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WASHINGTON —U.S.-backed forces in Syria moved to retake the very last patch the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, advancing on the terror group’s remaining fighters late Friday.
The final assault, announced on Twitter by Syrian Democratic Force spokesman Mustafa Bali, began just a day after the lead commander said the northeast Syrian village of Baghuz would be liberated within a week.
“After evacuation of thousands of civilians and our comrades who held hostage in #Baghouz, operation to clear the last remaining pocket of ISIS has just started at 18:00 this evening,” Bali wrote.
Another SDF official, speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity, said 15,000 troops were taking part in the operation, with the backing of U.S. and coalition airpower and artillery.
“Our final assault on Baghuz began with intense fighting with [IS] terrorists,” SDF spokeswoman Lilwa Abdullah told VOA separately. “But we will keep fighting until we break into their last defense line. ...”
“There aren’t any civilians left in Baghuz, so it’s a matter of time before we take a full control of it,” Abdullah added.
The U.S.-led coalition declined to provide any update late Friday, saying it was too early to assess the operation’s progress.
SDF officials had been bracing for a difficult fight, saying their troops are likely to encounter some of the Islamic State’s most dedicated and hardened fighters, aided by booby traps, improvised explosive devices and an extensive system of tunnels and caves.
Sources close to SDF officials on the ground told VOA there is grave concern that an unknown number of IS fighters may be hiding below ground in a network that may extend for more than two kilometers.
SDF and coalition officials had estimated more than a week ago that Baghuz held only about 300 IS fighters, as well as a few thousand civilians. But in the past week alone more than 13,000 civilians have fled the enclave.
Some had been telling SDF officials as late as Thursday that the tunnels remained packed with civilians.
The final assault on Baghuz also comes just a day after U.S. President Donald Trump told U.S. soldiers that the final shred of the IS caliphate had already fallen.
"We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent, the caliphate in Syria. Now it's 100 percent,” he said while visiting with U.S. troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska on Thursday.
"You saw what happened. Everybody saw. We have the whole thing," he added. “We did that in a much shorter period of time that it was supposed to be."
The comments, which barely caused a stir among the troops in attendance, quickly drew a sharp rebuke on Twitter from a spokesman with the YPG, a Kurdish militia that has contributed to the SDF, who berated the president’s “ignorance” regarding the battle front as “abhorrent.”
“Victory doesn’t seem to be coming in next days,” the YPG’s Zana Amedi warned via Twitter.
“ISIS is not simply laying down arms and surrendering,” he added, using an alternate acronym for the terror group. “They’re preparing to make a last stand which is making it harder to predict a quick ending.”
Despite having been reduced to a small patch of land, IS has held on by using civilians as human shields and by using the tunnels and caves to launch occasional counterattacks against SDF forces.
“It is a very difficult and complex situation,” coalition spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, told VOA Tuesday. “The threat remains as long as Daesh (IS) fighters have not given up in Baghuz and have the will and weapons to fight.”
Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.