SDF fighters gesture the ‘V’ for victory sign as they capture Daesh’s last remaining position in Baghouz on Tuesday. Agence France-Presse
US-backed Syrian forces took control on Tuesday of an encampment held by the Daesh militant group in eastern Syria, after dozens of militants surrendered overnight, a spokesman said.
A group of suspects involved in a January bombing that killed four Americans in northern Syria were among militants captured by the Kurdish-led forces.
The taking of the Daesh encampment was a major advance but not the final defeat of the group in Baghouz, the last village held by the extremists where they have been holding out for weeks under siege, according to Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
An unknown number of militants still clung to a tiny sliver of land about 200 metres by 200 metres trapped between the Euphrates River and the encampment now held by the SDF, officials in the force said.
In the seizure on Tuesday of the encampment, hundreds of wounded and sick militants were captured and have been evacuated to nearby military hospitals for treatment, Bali, the SDF spokesman, said in a Twitter post. Still, he cautioned, “this is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight.”
There were conflicting reports from SDF commanders on the ground about the extent of the Daesh surrender.
Commander Rustam Hasake said that SDF forces advanced on four fronts Monday night and were inside the camp when the last Daesh fighters surrendered at dawn.
He said the last fighters were pushed out of the camp and were now in an open patch of land by the Euphrates River and were being processed and detained. It was not clear how many they were.
Another commander, however, said some Daesh militants continue to hold a tiny area in an open patch of land in the village, outside the encampment.
Journalists in Baghouz reported sporadic gunfire echoing in Baghouz and jets circling overhead.
At a command post in Baghouz, a Humvee pulled up and unloaded weapons captured from Daesh on Tuesday, including sniper and hunting rifles, pump action shot guns and grenades and ammunition.
Five trucks hauling 10 trailers full of people were seen coming out of Baghouz. A child could be heard wailing from inside one of them.
Bali, in a separate Twitter post on Tuesday, said the SDF captured a group of suspects involved in a January suicide bombing that killed four Americans in the northern town of Manbij in northern Syria. He said the suspects were captured following technical surveillance by the SDF. He did not elaborate on the number of suspects or whether they were among the most recent militants to surrender.
The Daesh group claimed responsibility for the blast which struck outside a popular restaurant in Manbij in January that killed at least 16 people, including two US service members and two American civilians.
It was the deadliest assault on US troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.
Bali said the outcome of the ongoing investigation will be shared at a later time.
As they make their final stand, the militants have issued a string of statements this month claiming to have inflicted heavy losses on the SDF.
In an audio posted online on Monday, the Daesh spokesman, Abu Hassan Al Muhajer, issued his first message in six months, calling for revenge attacks in Western countries in retaliation for the shooting attack on two New Zealand mosques that killed 50 people.
He also ridiculed US declarations of the defeat of the Daesh group, calling the claim of victory a “hallucination.”
On Monday, Daesh issued a video showing its militants furiously defending the encampment, a junkyard of wrecked cards, motorcycles and tents.
In the footage, they shoot nonstop with AK-47s and M-16s from behind trucks, vehicles and sand berms.
A group of children could be seen at one point amid the fighting.
“My brothers everywhere, we did our best, the rest is up to God,” a fighter said to the backdrop of black smoke rising from behind him.
But even after Baghouz’s fall, Daesh maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells that threaten a continuing insurgency.
The battle for Baghouz has dragged on for weeks - and the encampment has proven a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.