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Islamic State 'caliphate' defeated after fall of Baghouz, says US-backed SDF

Syrian Democratic Forces say its fighters have captured Baghouz, the group's last small area of territory in Syria
SDF fighters were seen raising victory flags over buildings in Baghouz (AFP/RONAHI TV)

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces militia said that it had captured the last small area of territory controlled by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria on Saturday after weeks of fighting. 

SDF fighters were seen raising victory flags over buildings in Baghouz as they declared IS had been defeated across Syria and Iraq.

"Baghouz had been liberated. The military victory against Daesh (IS) has been accomplished," Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesperson wrote on Twitter, declaring the "total elimination of [the] so-called caliphate".

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Despite the SDF's claims, a Reuters reporter said he could still hear gunfire and mortar fire on the ground in Baghouz.  

SDF fighters paraded in Baghouz on Saturday in memory of 11,000 comrades, who they said had been killed in the years of fighting against IS.

The SDF launched its offensive against IS's last bastions in the Euphrates valley on 10 September, taking town after town before finally announcing victory in Baghouz.

The IS fighters have been besieged in a tiny camp full of rusting vehicles and makeshift shelters, pinned against the Euphrates and overlooked by hills held by the SDF.

Over the past two months, 60,000 people have poured out of Baghouz as SDF forces backed by US air strikes against IS have pummelled the area. 

Intense bombing throughout the campaign have levelled entire districts, often killing many civilians according to rights groups, allegations the coalition has often disputed.

Civilians made up more than half of the people leaving Baghouz, the SDF said, including women from the Yazidi sect who IS fighters had sexually enslaved.

Thousands of the group’s supporters also abandoned the enclave while still vowing their allegiance to IS.

IS leader 'in Iraq'

As fighting progressed over recent weeks, the convoys of trucks leaving Baghouz started to include hundreds, and then thousands, of IS fighters and their families who surrendered to SDF forces. 

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The SDF said it captured hundreds more in recent weeks who had tried to slip through its cordon and escape into Iraq or across the Euphrates and into the Syrian desert.

Though the defeat of IS in Baghouz ends the group's grip over the 'caliphate' straddling Syria and Iraq that it declared in 2014, it remains a threat.

At its height, the group controlled 88,000 sq km of land, but since then it has lost one territory after another, culminating in the fall of a Baghouz.

The US believes the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who stood at the pulpit of the great medieval mosque in Mosul in 2014 to declare himself caliph and sovereign over all Muslims, is in Iraq.

'The menace remains'

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday that a "major danger for France" had been eliminated following IS's reported defeat.

"A huge step has been taken today. A major danger for our country is eliminated," Macron wrote on Twitter.

"But the menace remains and the struggle against terrorist groups must continue," Macron said.

Also writing on Twitter, French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly warned that: "Islamic State no longer has any territory, but it has not disappeared."

Civilian deaths

More than 630 civilians were killed in the six-month operation against IS according to a UK-based activist group.

The civilian dead, among them relatives of IS fighters, included 209 children and 157 women, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Saturday.

The observatory said the operation had cost the lives of 730 SDF fighters while 1,600 IS fighters were also killed.