BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP/FOX 10) - U.S.-backed Syrian forces took control Tuesday of an encampment held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria after dozens of militants surrendered overnight, a spokesman said.
A group of suspects involved in a January bombing that killed four Americans in northern Syria were among militants captured by the Kurdish-led forces.
The taking of the IS encampment, though a significant milestone, was not the final defeat of IS in the village of Baghouz, the last sliver of territory in Syria held by the extremists, according to Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
"This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight," Bali said in a Twitter post. He said hundreds of wounded and sick militants were captured and have been evacuated to nearby military hospitals for treatment.
The IS-held village is the last pocket of territory in Syria controlled by the extremist group, which once held a vast area of Syria and Iraq, calling it an Islamic "caliphate." Baghouz's fall would mark the end of the devastating four-year campaign to end IS's hold on any kind of territory, although it maintains scattered presence and sleeper cells in both countries.
The battle for Baghouz -- including the encampment, a collection of tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels -- has dragged on for weeks amid an unexpected exodus of civilians from the area.
The sheer number of people who have emerged, nearly 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials, has taken the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise. Most have been women and children whose existence in a labyrinth of underground caves and tunnels was unknown to the U.S.-backed fighters.
In the last two weeks, many IS militants appeared to be among those evacuating. But SDF commanders have stopped speculating when the battle may finally be over. Commanders say they don't know how many more may still be left, hiding in tunnels beneath the war-scarred village.
There were conflicting reports from SDF commanders on the ground about the extent of the IS surrender.
Commander Rustam Hasake told The Associated Press that SDF forces advanced on four fronts on Monday night and were inside the camp when the last IS fighters surrendered at dawn. He said the last fighters were pushed out of the camp and were now in an open patch of land by the Euphrates River and were being processed and detained. It was not clear how many they were.
Another commander, however, said some IS militants continue to hold a tiny area in an open patch of land in the village, outside the encampment.
Associated Press journalists in Baghouz reported sporadic gunfire echoing in Baghouz and jets circling overhead. At a command post in Baghouz, a Humvee pulled up and unloaded weapons captured from IS on Tuesday, including sniper and hunting rifles, pump action shotguns and grenades and ammunition.
Bali, in a separate Twitter post on Tuesday, said the SDF captured a group of suspects involved in a January suicide bombing that killed four Americans in the northern town of Manbij in northern Syria. He said the suspects were captured following technical surveillance by the group. He did not elaborate on the number of suspects or whether they were among the most recent militants to surrender.
A group of suspects believed to be involved in January 16 Manbij bombing that killed several US and SDF servicemen were captured following technical surveillance by our forces. The outcome of the ongoing investigation will be shared at a later time.— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) March 19, 2019
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the blast which struck outside a popular restaurant in Manbij in January that killed at least 16 people, including two U.S. service members and two American civilians. It was the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.
Bali said the outcome of the ongoing investigation will be shared at a later time.