Western-backed forces look on the brink of defeating Islamic State in its final holdout in eastern Syria after seizing control of all but a tiny sliver of land on a river bank.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) made major gains on Tuesday after more than 150 “experienced” Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) militants became the latest to surrender.
Hundreds of fighters, most of them foreign, have abandoned the fight in recent days. The SDF had offered those left in the pocket a safe corridor through which to flee.
The sick and wounded among them were evacuated to nearby military hospitals for treatment, according to a spokesman for the SDF.
The advance brought a months-old operation to wipe out the last vestige of Isil’s once-sprawling "caliphate" closer to its inevitable outcome but the SDF stopped short of declaring the battle over.
"This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh," Mustafa Bali, SDF spokesman, said, using an Arabic acronym for Isil.
The SDF continued to clash with a very small band of fighters – thought to be in the dozens – who were now cornered on the banks of the Euphrates.
An SDF statement said the forces managed to kill 24 fighters, while three more were blew themselves up in suicide attacks.
Videos released by Isil in recent days reveals the desperate situation for the jihadist group in Baghuz, showing children who looked to be no older than 12, and women – or possibly men in women’s clothing – fighting on the frontline.
“Even the implication of ‘women’ in their official videos shooting guns in a true statement of the current status of the group,” said Devorah Margolin, a senior research analyst at the War Studies Department of Kings College London.
Last pocket of Isil territory – Baghuz
"The Islamic State has been adamant that women should only be allowed to fight in ‘defensive jihad’ and only under specific circumstances," she said. "Isil’s use of women in an official video confirms that those circumstances have been met, and is a statement about the current state of the group."
The Kurdish-led force also said it arrested a number jihadists suspected of involvement in a January attack that killed four American personnel in the northern Syrian city of Manbij – the most deadly for the US since they intervened in the war in 2014.