Doomed ISIS fighters make final stand in Syria
BAGHOUZ, Syria -- Holdout jihadists scurried along the reedy banks of the Euphrates in an increasingly desperate defence Tuesday (March 19) of the last scrap of their so-called "caliphate" in eastern Syria.
Advancing US-backed Kurdish forces forced diehard fighters from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) out of the main encampment where they had been confined in recent days.
The move brought a months-old operation to wipe out the last vestige of ISIS's once-sprawling proto-state closer to its inevitable outcome, but the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stopped short of declaring victory.
Some of the jihadists now fighting for a few fields in a bend of the river seemed unwilling to surrender, and a senior ISIS leader even issued a message calling for attacks.
"This is not a victory announcement but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh," SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
A few days ago, the last denizens of the ISIS bastion were crammed into a chaotic encampment on the edge of Baghouz, a jumble of mangled vehicles, hastily dug berms and makeshift tents.
Thousands of them -- fighters, their relatives and other civilians -- fled the death trap in recent weeks and turned themselves in after scaling a nearby hill to a position held by the SDF.
The Kurdish-led force, which also includes fighters from local Arab tribes, moved in on Tuesday and took up positions in the deserted encampment, leaving holdout jihadists cornered.
Syrian regime and allied forces are deployed on the other side of the river and the border, preventing any escape.
With daily air strikes and shelling from the US-led coalition and its SDF ground partners, hundreds of fighters have been pummelled into submission in recent days.
Collapse of ISIS
The so-called "caliphate", which leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in mid-2014, once covered territory larger than Britain, straddling Syria and Iraq.
It administered millions of inhabitants, ran its own court system, coined its own currency, printed its own schoolbooks and instilled fear on a global scale.
It has crumbled under years of military operations in which Syrian and Iraqi forces backed by their international allies clawed back the land but left cities in ruins and populations homeless.
Baghdadi's whereabouts are unknown, and the Baghouz holdouts are fighting over land the size of a few football pitches.
Many of its leaders and fighters in Iraq and Syria have long reverted to a guerrilla war, launching hit-and-run attacks from desert, mountain and other hideouts.
The thousands of ghost-like stragglers who streamed out of the last ISIS stronghold in recent weeks now fill overcrowded camps and prisons run by the Kurds further north.
The 70,000 individuals crammed into the biggest camp -- Al-Hol -- include more than 40,000 children, of dozens of different nationalities.