The ISIS group was close to defeat in its final pocket on Tuesday after ferocious bombardments overnight and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the offensive to capture the area was nearly over.
The besieged enclave of Baghouz is the last shred of territory held by the militants who have been driven from roughly one-third of Iraq and Syria over the past four years by its enemies, including a US-led international coalition.
“The operation is over, or as good as over, but requires a little more time to be completed practically on the ground,” SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told al-Hadath TV. ISIS was still putting up resistance with weapons including car bombs.
The Baghouz enclave was targeted with barrages of rockets overnight and fires raged inside, but the bombardments ceased on Tuesday morning.
The SDF has been laying siege to Baghouz for weeks but repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow the evacuation of thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of ISIS militants. It finally resumed the attack on Sunday, backed by coalition air strikes.
Gabriel said 25 ISIS militants had been confirmed killed so far in clashes, in addition to an unknown number of militants killed by air strikes. Another SDF official earlier said 38 jihadists had been confirmed killed.
The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has been advancing slowly into Baghouz to minimize its losses from sniper fire and landmines.
Three SDF fighters have been killed, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said on Twitter.
Besieged by SDF, ISIS called on supporters across the world to stage attacks in their defense, according to a newly released audio recording.
The brief, minute-and-a-half recording, released by ISIS supporters on social media and reported by the SITE Intelligence Group late on Monday said that men, women and children in Baghouz are being subjected to a "holocaust by the Crusaders," which is militant jargon for the US-led coalition against ISIS.
In the audio, an unidentified ISIS militant calls on Muslim "brothers, in Europe and in the whole world" to "rise against the Crusaders and ... take revenge for your religion." As the man speaks, cracks of gunfire can be heard in the background, apparently meant to suggest that he is in Baghouz.
ISIS' defenses include extensive tunnels and its most hardened foreign fighters are holed up inside the enclave, the SDF has said.
However the United States does not believe any senior ISIS leaders are in Baghouz, assessing they have gone elsewhere as part of the group’s shift toward an insurgency, a US defense official has said.
The group still operates in remote territory elsewhere and it is widely assessed that it will continue to represent a potent security threat.
The bulk of the people evacuated from the diminishing ISIS territory have been transported to a camp for internally displaced people in al-Hol, in northeastern Syria, where the United Nations says conditions are dire.
The camp, designed to accommodate 20,000 people, is now sheltering more than 66,000, the UN said.
Obdurate support voiced by many evacuees for ISIS, particularly among foreigners, has posed a complex security, legal, and moral challenge.