BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — The sound of mortar shelling and fighter jets whizzing by filled the air.
At the base in this small village, fighters from the U.S.- backed Syrian Democratic Forces coordinate with their comrades about two kilometers (1.2 miles) away who are closing in on Islamic State militants hiding in their last toehold on the border between Syria and Iraq.
Despite the projectiles being fired, the mood among the fighters at this base is easygoing. The Kurdish-led force, with help from the U.S.-led coalition, has all but defeated the most ferocious extremist group to terrorize the region in years.
“The situation is great. It can’t be better,” said one commander at the front line into his walkie-talkie.
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Clashes continue inside the village of Baghouz, mostly at night. Fighters say IS militants are hiding among civilians in a displaced people’s camp to avoid airstrikes. Artillery rounds were meant to clear land mines for the SDF fighters to advance.
But SDF commanders insist the official end of the group’s hold on territory in Syria is near.
“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” said Ciya Furat, a commander with the Kurdish-led SDF, speaking at a news conference, miles away at the al-Omar Oil Field Base in the Deir el-Zour province.
The capture of the last pocket still held by IS fighters in Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria and the fight against IS by the end of Saturday.
“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” Trump told journalists at the White House on Friday.
An Associated Press team in Baghouz on Saturday heard several aircraft overhead. At least two airstrikes and mortar rounds were seen in the distance, close to the tiny area where the militants are said to be holed up. SDF fighters said they were fired by the U.S.-led coalition.
The SDF declared the final push to capture the village a week ago after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them the wives and families of foreign fighters, were evacuated. Since then, SDF commanders say they have been surprised to discover that there were hundreds of civilians still in the enclave, after they were brought up by the militants from underground tunnels. Their presence has slowed down the SDF advance.
Hostages, including fighters from the Kurdish-led forces and civilians, were another reason the advances were slowed down.
Furat, the SDF commander, said that his fighters were able to liberate 10 of their colleagues held by IS. He said IS fighters are now besieged in an area that is about 700 square meters (840 square yards).
Furat’s comments were carried by Kurdish news agencies, including Hawar News.
“We are dealing with this small pocket with patience and caution. It is militarily fallen but civilians are used as human shields,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told the AP. Bali added that the SDF believes that IS gunmen are also holding previously kidnapped Syrians in the area.
SDF fighters said that as they cleared areas captured from IS they found some captives held in bathrooms four days earlier, including two soldiers from the Syrian government. They added that they have also removed and buried bodies of foreign fighters.
“We found bodies of Moroccans, Chinese and Chechnyans. Bodies of foreigners,” said SDF fighter Hamza as he communicated with his comrades on his walkie-talkie.
Hamza said IS snipers still target their forces from among the civilians and described the abundance of land mines as a major challenge. He also had a message for the U.S. president.
“We tell Trump, it wasn’t you that liberated it. It was us here on the ground,” he added.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters are almost in full control of the area once controlled by extremists, adding that there might still be IS fighters hiding in a network of underground tunnels.
The Observatory said that some 200 IS gunmen surrendered Friday, days after about 240 others surrendered and were taken by SDF fighters and members of the U.S.-led coalition.
Furat said that after the physical defeat of IS, the SDF “will continue in its fight against Daesh sleepers cells.”
Despite the expected defeat on the ground, activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The group has claimed responsibility in recent months for deadly attacks, mostly in Iraq, more than a year after the Iraqi government said the extremists have been defeated after losing the northern city of Mosul in 2017, the largest they held.
Hamza, the fighter, said his forces have borne the brunt of the fighting in the ground offensive against the militants. Despite being on the brink of territorial defeat, the group remains a danger, he said.
“We can finish Daesh off in two days,” Hamza said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “But we need months or years to liberate the minds.”
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.