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Kurdish-led forces overrun 'last Islamic State-held village' in Syria

Capture of Baghouz leaves few remaining IS fighters holed up in scattered farmhouses north of Euphrates River, activist group says
Fall of Baghouz follows SDF's capture of enclave's sole town of Hajin and villages of al-Shaafa and Sousa in recent weeks (AFP)

Kurdish-led fighters have overrun the last village held by the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, confining its once vast cross-border "caliphate" to two small hamlets, a UK-based activist group said.

The seizure is the culmination of a broad offensive launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last September, with US-led coalition support, in which they have reduced IS's last enclave on the north bank of the Euphrates valley to a tiny rump.

Wednesday's capture of the village of Baghouz leaves the few remaining diehard IS fighters holed up in scattered farmhouses among the irrigated fields and orchards on the north bank of the river near the Iraqi border .

We are seeing a lot of enemy fighters fleeing

- US-led coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan

"Search operations are continuing in Baghouz to find any IS fighters who are still hiding," the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told the AFP news agency.

"The SDF will now have to push on into the farmland around Baghouz."

The Observatory said late on Tuesday that about 4,900 people, mostly women and children but including 470 IS fighters, had fled the area in the past two days.

Of those, 3,500 surrendered to the advancing SDF on Tuesday alone and were evacuated on dozens of trucks chartered by the Kurdish-led militia.

'Largely defeated'

The fall of Baghouz follows the SDF's capture of the enclave's sole town of Hajin and the villages of al-Shaafa and Sousa in recent weeks.

The new wave of departures means that about 27,000 people have left former IS areas since early December, including almost 1,800 IS fighters who have surrendered, the Observatory said.

The whereabouts of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are unknown. He has made just one public appearance in the last few years - in Iraq's then IS-held second city Mosul, in 2014.

To compensate for the loss of territory, the ultra-hardline militants are now expanding hit-and-run assassinations of SDF fighters and commanders and attacks on checkpoints, local residents told Reuters.

"The militants are changing tactics and adopting guerrilla methods and will be now using hundreds of their sleeper cells to wage deadly attacks," Sheikh Faisal Marashdah, a tribal leader, said.

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Last month, US President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement of a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

Trump justified the order with the assertion that IS had now been "largely defeated" in Syria.

The US-led coalition declined to be drawn on when it expected its SDF allies to overrun the final sliver of territory still under IS control.

"It is difficult to say how much longer, despite the progress," coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said.

"We try to stay away from timelines as it is more about degrading the enemy's capabilities.

"We are seeing a lot of enemy fighters fleeing. The Syrian forces are less than 10km from the Iraqi border but still fighting against a resistance of diehard fighters."

Manbij attack

The remaining IS militants are well within artillery range of Iraqi forces stationed along the border, who are determined to prevent IS fugitives from slipping across.

On Saturday, Iraqi shelling and air strikes on IS positions in an around Baghouz killed at least 20 fighters, according to the Observatory.

The coalition has stepped up its own air strikes against IS since the armed group killed four Americans and 15 other people in a suicide bombing on a restaurant in the flashpoint northern town of Manbij on 16 January.

The US losses were the biggest since Washington deployed troops in Syria in 2014 in support of the SDF.

Previously it had reported just two combat losses in separate incidents.