Fierce fighting near last ISIS foothold in eastern Syria

Mon, Feb 11, 2019 (8:01 a.m.)

BEIRUT — Fierce fighting was underway Monday between U.S.-backed Syrian forces and the Islamic State group around the extremists' last foothold in eastern Syria, with the besieged militants fighting back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps, a Syrian war monitor and a Kurdish news agency said.

An Italian photographer was wounded in the battle between advancing U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the scores of militants holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, an Italian news agency said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces on Saturday launched a final push to clear the area from IS under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-backed coalition.

The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a four-year global war to end IS' territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in 2014.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the push by the Kurdish-led SDF has been slow due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists' use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. The IS also using civilians as human shields, the Observatory said.

On Monday, the Observatory said 13 IS militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency also reported heavy fighting in Baghouz.

IS said in a statement posted late Sunday that two of its "martyrdom-seekers" attacked SDF fighters in Baghouz with their explosive-laden car.

Syrian state media claimed a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Baghouz killed two women and two children. More than 20,000 civilians have left the IS-held area in recent weeks.

The Italian news agency ANSA said Milan-born Gabriele Micalizzi, 34, was injured in the face by splinters of a rocket-propelled grenade, adding that his life was not in danger. It said he was being airlifted by the coalition to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to under 5 square kilometers (under 2 square miles), where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.

The U.S. military has warned that the group could stage a comeback if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased.

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