IS mounting stiff defence of last enclave

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A woman walks with her children at a US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) screening area after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State, in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, Friday, March 1, 2019.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battled to seize control of Baghouz today.

The ground assault into the last area held by the Islamic State group intensified Saturday as US -backed Syrian fighters made "remarkable progress" amid heavy clashes, including the capture of a hill overlooking a tent encampment for the extremists, officials with the Kurdish-led forces said.

Mr Bali told The Daily Telegraph that said the operation is expected to last two days, but may take a week to complete as hardened jihadists fight back with heavy weapons and suicide auto bombs.

"We expect a decisive battle in the morning", he told Reuters on a hill overlooking Baghouz.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) was fighting back with snipers, suicide bombs and booby traps.

Two helicopters for the USA -led coalition were seen circling the area of fighting around noon Saturday.

The jihadists in Baghouz are thought to be the "most hardened" militants.

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A senior SDF commander described the militants as "rats" but acknowledged that they're still fighting to the bitter end.

The U.S. -backed fighters say IS militants are mostly hiding underground, in tunnels. Air strikes destroyed two of them, and the SDF fired on a third to blow it up, he said. As IS territory shriveled, thousands of fighters, followers and civilians retreated to Baghouz, a small cluster of hamlets and farmland along the Euphrates River.

Over the past few weeks, they have poured out in greater numbers than expected, holding up the final assault.

The SDF on Friday evening resumed military operations to liberate the last piece of territory held by IS in the province of Deir el-Zour after evacuating thousands of civilians and hostages who had been besieged inside. Afrin told Reuters on Thursday that numerous people leaving the enclave had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

The US now has about 2,000 troops based in Syria to support the SDF against the terror group. It has not ruled out the possibility that some militants have crept out, hidden among civilians.

The Syrian Democratic Forces commander-in-chief said last Thursday that his force would declare victory within a week.

In December, Mr Trump said they would be withdrawn but last month the White House said 400 would stay.

The final assault on Baghuz comes just a day after U.S. President Donald Trump told U.S. soldiers that the final shred of the IS caliphate had already fallen.

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