US-backed Syria force says IS territorial defeat is near

BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — The sound of mortar shelling and fighter jets whizzing by filled the air.

At the base in this small village, fighters from the U.S.- backed Syrian Democratic Forces coordinate with their comrades about 1.2 miles away who are closing in on Islamic State militants hiding in their last toehold on the border between Syria and Iraq.

Despite the projectiles being fired, the mood among the fighters at this base is easygoing. The Kurdish-led force, with help from the U.S.-led coalition, has all but defeated the most ferocious extremist group to terrorize the region in years.

“The situation is great. It can’t be better,” said one commander at the front line into his walkie-talkie.

Clashes continue inside the village of Baghouz, mostly at night. Fighters say IS militants are hiding among civilians in a displaced people’s camp to avoid airstrikes. Artillery rounds were meant to clear land mines for the SDF fighters to advance.

But SDF commanders insist the official end of the group’s hold on territory in Syria is near.

“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” said Ciya Furat, a commander with the Kurdish-led SDF, speaking at a news conference, miles away at the al-Omar Oil Field Base in the Deir el-Zour province.

The capture of the last pocket still held by IS fighters in Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.

President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria and the fight against IS by the end of Saturday.

“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” Trump told journalists at the White House on Friday.

An Associated Press team in Baghouz on Saturday heard several aircraft overhead. At least two airstrikes and mortar rounds were seen in the distance, close to the tiny area where the militants are said to be holed up. SDF fighters said they were fired by the U.S.-led coalition.

The SDF declared the final push to capture the village a week ago after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them the wives and families of foreign fighters, were evacuated. Since then, SDF commanders say they have been surprised to discover that there were hundreds of civilians still in the enclave, after they were brought up by the militants from underground tunnels. Their presence has slowed down the SDF advance.

Hostages, including fighters from the Kurdish-led forces and civilians, were another reason the advances were slowed down.

Furat, the SDF commander, said that his fighters were able to liberate 10 of their colleagues held by IS. He said IS fighters are now besieged in an area that is about 840 square yards.