Syria fighters say IS still holds civilians, slowing attack

Plumes of smoke rise in Baghouz Deir Al Zor province

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had expected a "decisive battle" after advancing gradually for 18 hours but found IS fighters using underground tunnels to stage ambushes and then disappear.

An array of enemies, both local and worldwide, confronted IS after it declared a modern-day "caliphate" in 2014 across large swathes of territory it had seized in lightning offensives in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

An unknown number of jihadists remained inside, the source said.

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.

US -backed Syrian fighters battling Islamic State militants in their last foothold in Syria said they were forced to slow down their push on Monday because the extremists are using civilians as human shields.

The Syrian Democratic Forces clashed with ISIS for almost 18 hours inside Baghouz after removing the remaining civilians and resuming their assault on Friday evening.

An SDF spokeswoman said the offensive has slowed down but pressure is being kept up away from the evacuation corridor to prevent fighters from infiltrating or sabotaging the area.

As ISIL's territory shrank, thousands of fighters, followers and civilians had retreated to Baghouz, on the eastern side of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border.

Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand together near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 1, 2019.

As late as Thursday, some of those fleeing Baghuz civilians were saying hundreds more civilians were still in hiding.

"There are tunnels. We're not sure how many members of the Islamic State are still inside", an SDF commander said from a rooftop about 400 metres from the front line. But SDF officials rejected those accounts.

The final assault on Baghuz comes just a day after U.S. President Donald Trump told U.S. soldiers that the final shred of the IS caliphate had already fallen. Asked in an interview with CNN whether IS has been defeated in "100 percent of the land" in Syria, as Trump had asserted earlier this week, he said: "It will happen very, very soon".

The US has around 2,000 troops in Syria mainly to support the SDF in fighting against Islamic State.

Col Sean Ryan, a coalition spokesman said: "Isil fighters have been using suicide vests and auto bombs to slow down the SDF offensive and hide from coalition strikes in the area of Baghuz".

"They still hold civilians and are lacing the tunnels with IEDs as well", Col Sean Ryan, the worldwide anti-ISIS coalition spokesman, told Reuters on Sunday. "The threat remains as long as Daesh (IS) fighters have not given up in Baghuz and have the will and weapons to fight".

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