The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said it would seize control of the village of Baghouz, where a pocket of Isis fighters is holed up, in “a very short time” after hundreds of militants reportedly surrendered.
Battle commander Jiya Furat said the SDF had cornered the remaining militants in one tiny neighbourhood but were moving cautiously because of civilians and hostages “trapped there as human shields”.
The mostly foreign Isis fighters have been hiding among civilians in a tiny camp in Deir ez-Zor province, the last remnant of a proclaimed caliphate that once encompassed over 41,000 square miles of Iraq and Syria.
About 440 jihadis have surrendered during a week-long SDF offensive backed by US airstrikes and special forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The UK-based observatory said the SDF had taken control of Baghouz on Saturday, but Mr Furat said a few hundred jidahis still held 700sq m of territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river.
“The village is under the fire of our forces ... but thousands of civilians are still trapped there as human shields,” he told Reuters.
“In the coming few days, in a very short time, we will spread the good tidings to the world of the military end of Daesh.”
President Donald Trump said on Friday he expected the “eradication of the caliphate” to be announced within 24 hours.
But the SDF offensive was complicated by the discovery that about 1,600 women and children, mostly families of Isis fighters, remained in the village.
“This was a surprise. We did not imagine there would be this number of civilians left,” said commander Adnan Afrin on Friday. “We do not want to cause a massacre against civilians in the last pocket.”
More than 20,000 civilians, many of them the wives of Isis militants, have fled the area amid intense fighting as the SDF closed in from three sides under the cover of airstrikes by a US-led coalition.
SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said some militants had been caught attempting to escape with civilians.
After capturing Baghouz, the Kurdish-led forces will move on to “chasing down sleeper cells and remnants spread out across the region to secure it”, he added.
The US commander leading the war against Isis on Friday cautioned against declaring victory over the jidahist group.
Joseph Votel, the top American general in the Middle East, told CNN: “When I say, ‘we have defeated them’, I want to ensure that means they do not have the capability to plot or direct attacks against the US or our allies.
“They still have this very powerful ideology, so they can inspire.”
Mr Votel, who is soon leaving his post, criticised Mr Trump’s December announcement that the US is to withdraw its troops from Syria.
“It would not have been my military advice at that particular time,” he said. “I would not have made that suggestion, frankly.”
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