IS militants cling to last square mile in Syria

OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria — Islamic State group militants clung to their last square square mile of land in eastern Syria on Thursday with an unknown number of civilians trapped inside, officials said.

U.S.-backed forces conducted precision operations targeting the militants’ outposts in and around the village of Baghouz and worked to clear surrounding villages of remaining fighters, officials with the Kurdish-led forces said.

Thousands of people, including many foreign fighters and their families, have emerged from the area in the past few weeks amid ferocious fighting as the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces closed in from three sides.

They include scores of militants who surrendered to the SDF on Wednesday night, but the exodus of civilians has slowed to a trickle in recent days.

The United Nations opened a transit center Thursday in Suar, halfway between the towns of Hajin and Al Hol, with room for 400 people, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, adding that a small number of displaced women and children are already using its services.

“The battle continues but the pace has changed. … There are advances but very slow,” said Mervan, an SDF official who goes by the nickname “the Brave.”

He said SDF operations have focused mainly on the village’s northeast axis, hitting posts held by IS and its cells. He said the militants attacked the Kurdish forces the night before, hitting one of their vehicles and killing a number of fighters. The militants are using new thermal weapons, he said.

“The forces are moving very slowly. They are not moving heavy weapons, very little unless guided and very precise,” he said. The SDF official said he estimates 300 militants remain inside the enclave, and about 1 square kilometer (1 square mile) remains in IS hands.

Ciyager Amed, an SDF official, said it is difficult to differentiate between the militants and civilians stilled holed up in Baghouz, citing one reason why the advances have slowed down. Another official said tunnels were still being discovered.

Associated Press journalists standing about a mile outside of Baghouz said it was quiet Thursday. Soldiers were milling about, their guard down as the wind swept through the sandy plateau, dotted with yellow flowers and damp soil from morning showers.

A trickle of civilians came out overnight — the smallest number in weeks — according to one aid worker on site.

A U.S. aid worker outside of Baghouz said they included one Yazidi woman and her children, who had spent four years under IS control. She was whisked away to safety after getting out of the village, he said.

At midday, about a dozen men who had come out of Baghouz, were sitting in a line on the ground in the screening area on a hill, where coalition soldiers were screening them.