Thousands of civilians have fled fighting in the last village held by IS militants

Fighting slows ‘final push’ against IS in eastern Syria

US-backed fighters in Syria say they are meeting fierce resistance in the last enclave held by Islamic State (IS) militants near the Iraqi border.

A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told the AP news agency “the most experienced” jihadists are defending their last stronghold.

Two years ago IS controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq.

But they are now holed up in a tiny pocket in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zour, near the Iraqi border.

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On Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow some 20,000 civilians to leave the area, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said the group was launching the “final battle to crush IS” in the border village of Baghuz.

Overnight he told the Associated Press (AP): “The battle is very fierce. Those remaining inside are the most experienced who are defending their last stronghold. According to this you can imagine the ferocity and size of the fighting.”

The SDF, backed by air strikes carried out of the US-led coalition, has driven out IS from towns and villages in north-eastern Syria in recent months.

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Latifa travelled from her home in Morocco after her son died fighting for the Islamic State group
Latifa travelled from her home in Morocco after her son died fighting for the Islamic State group

At its peak in 2014, IS established a “caliphate” stretching across Syria and Iraq that was similar in size to the UK and ruled over more than 7.7 million people.

In December, US President Donald Trump said IS militants were “mostly gone” and announced the US would withdraw all of its 2,000 troops from Syria.

On Wednesday he said: “It should be announced, probably some time next week, that we will have 100% of the caliphate.”

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IS’s last stand?

Analysis by BBC Michael Johnson editor Sebastian Usher

The battle for the tiny sliver of land still held by IS next to the Iraqi border has been raging for many hours.

Air strikes and artillery fire have pummelled the IS position, which measures only about a mile across. The SDF believes it will shortly achieve a decisive victory.

IS does still hold another scrap of territory in Syria – and it continues to carry out dozens of attacks – many targeting the SDF.

Even as it seems likely to lose every last fragment of its once-vaunted and self-declared caliphate, IS can continue to operate and pose a potent threat in both Syria and Iraq from remote areas where its fighters find refuge, as well as through militants gone to ground in towns and cities.

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Map showing control of Syria around town of Albu Kamal (7 February 2019)
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How many militants are left?

IS has suffered substantial losses, but the UN says it still reportedly controls between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners.

Meanwhile, there are significant numbers of IS-affiliated militants in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, South-East Asia and West Africa, and to a lesser extent in Somalia, Yemen, Sinai and the Sahel.

Individuals inspired by the group’s ideology also continue to carry out attacks elsewhere.

Syria map

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