Fireballs and black smoke billow from final IS holdout in Syria

Baghuz: The rattle of guns, bomb blasts and black smoke — a deluge of fire is being unleashed on the Islamic State’s last Syrian stronghold by Kurdish-led and international forces.

“Watch out, it’s coming!” Kurdish commander Hagit Qamishlo shouts to AFP journalists, from the terrace of a house that overlooks the battlefield some 800 metres away.

A few minutes later, a low growl announces the arrival of a plane from the US-led coalition.

It hits one of the jihadist positions, the explosion sending a shockwave juddering through the landscape and reducing several houses to dust in the IS-held sliver of Baghouz village.

“Well played! That was a jihadist sniper position”, Qamishlo relays into his walkie talkie.

He then asks fellow Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) units on the ground if they have coordinates for other enemy positions to feed to the coalition.

The jihadists’ patch of territory — a bombed out cluster of buildings next to tents that for weeks allowed fighters to hide among civilians — is down to 700 square metres.

It is just a tiny fraction of the “caliphate” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in 2014 that sprawled across swathes of both Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

An hour earlier, a coalition air strike targeting another jihadist position hit an underground ammunition store.

It triggered an enormous and extended explosion, accompanied by a series of fireballs that were celebrated by Kurdish and Arab SDF fighters.

– ‘The most radical’ –
A two-week suspension of operations by the SDF — motivated by concerns about the use of civilians as human shields by IS — had given the jihadists respite.

The offensive resumed on Friday evening, with the holdout forces resisting.

“They are completely encircled,” another SDF commander, Sefqan, tells AFP.

“But they have planted mines along all the roads (and) in the houses,” he says.

Several mines seriously wounded SDF fighters in the early hours of the assault.

After a short night-time interval, the fighting — SDF artillery and mortar fire, countered by the jihadists’ smaller projectiles, sniper fire and mines — resumed early Sunday.

IS had “also booby trapped cars, but they have not had the time to use them against us because we have neutralised them with drone strikes”, Sefqan adds.

SDF commanders have repeated for several weeks that the end is near for IS.

It may take another “four or five days or so” to finally prevail, they now say — depending on how many diehards remain in the way.

“With the tunnels that they dug, we don’t know how many of them there are,” Sefqan admits.

Fellow commander Qamishlo says Iraqis figure are among the remaining hardcore, but foreigners are more numerous, including Russians, Turks, Tunisians, Central Asians and at least seven from France.

During the two-week humanitarian window, more than 10,000 people vacated Baghouz for SDF-held territory, including many wives and children of jihadists that IS allowed to leave.

But other wives and offspring of IS fighters remain in the group’s besieged and bombarded tunnels.

“Those that have stayed are there to fight or blow themselves up — they are the most radical”, insists Qamishlo.