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Kurdish forces say dozens of Islamic State fighters killed as battle for Baghouz rages

SDF forces have taken positions inside northern Syria enclave as US-coalition aircraft bomb IS positions
Smoke could be seen billowing above the last IS-held enclave in Syria near the village of Baghouz (AFP)

United States-backed fighters in Syria say dozens of Islamic State (IS) group militants have been killed in the battle over the group's last enclave in the war-torn country, major news agencies have reported.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish militia backed by Washington, said in an update on Monday that "tens" of IS fighters were killed during what it called fierce clashes near Baghouz, Reuters said.

Air strikes pounded the small patch of land beside the Euphrates River early on Monday, as smoke rose over the village in eastern Syria, the news agency reported.

The SDF also said one of its fighters had been injured in the clashes.

"The SDF ground offensive has been very effective," coalition spokesman Sean Ryan said on Monday, as reported by AFP.

A witness told Reuters that IS fighters had mounted a counter-attack, while the SDF said IS deployed four suicide bombers.

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The last IS-held enclave in Syria, near the village of Baghouz, resembles an encampment filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins.

The structures could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them.

The SDF has waged a staggered assault on the enclave, pausing for long periods over recent weeks to allow mostly women and children - many of whom are believed to be the relatives of suspected IS fighters - to pour out.

Women and children leaving the area have spoken of harsh conditions under coalition bombardment. They said they lived with food supplies so scarce that some resorted to eating grass.

Former residents also told Reuters that hundreds of civilians have been killed in recent months by heavy aerial bombing from the US-led coalition.

Backed by air power and special forces from that coalition, the SDF has pushed IS from almost the entire northeastern corner of Syria, defeating it in Raqqa in 2017 and driving it to its last enclave in Baghouz last year.

Last month, the SDF said it had found a mass grave in an area it captured. Former residents told Reuters that those buried were victims of coalition air strikes.

The Kurdish-led SDF now controls some 30 percent of Syrian territory, including areas from which it has expelled IS.

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Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub on Monday said his government would recapture territory controlled by the SDF in the same way it "liberated" other parts of the country, AFP reported. 

"The only card that remains in the hands of the Americans and their allies is the SDF," he said.

"The Syrian government will deal with this issue in one of two ways: a reconciliation agreement or liberating the territory they control by force," he said.

The SDF and the coalition say that the IS fighters inside Baghouz are among the group's most hardened foreign fighters.