Western-backed forces say they plan to crush the Islamic State terror group within two days after launching an operation to clear out the group's final stronghold.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led group that has been the US-led coalition’s main ally against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in Syria, commenced their final assault on the village of Baghuz just after sunset on Friday night.
“After evacuation of thousands of civilians and our comrades who were held hostage in Baghouz, the operation to clear the last remaining pocket of Isil started at 18:00 this evening,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF 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 car bombs.
Isil, which once ruled over eight million people in a proto-state covering large swathes of Syria and Iraq, now controls a patch of land about 700 metres across on the banks of the Euphrates river.
The operation follows three weeks of evacuations of civilians from the tiny pocket. About 17,000 people, mostly women and children, have left in the past 16 days.
SDF commanders estimate there are around 1,000 Isil fighters remaining in the pocket, along with an unknown number of non-combatants.
They may include John Cantlie, a British journalist who was kidnapped in 2012. Ben Wallace, the UK Security Minister, said last month that there was reason to believe Mr Cantlie is still alive.
Although the fall of Baghuz would mark the end of the group’s pretensions to a caliphate, SDF officials have warned it will continue to present a security threat.
Sleeper cells using guerrilla tactics continue to carry out drive-by shootings and suicide bombings in liberated areas. Some fighters still hold some desolate territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.
“All the remaining fighters are experienced and professional. They the true radicals and jihadist fighters. Therefore they will fight to the end,” Mr Bali said. “We do not expect any to surrender.”