U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces said Saturday that they have started a final push to defeat the Islamic State group in the last tiny pocket the extremists hold in eastern Syria.
Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted that the offensive began Saturday after more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the Islamic State-held area in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. A Syrian Democratic Forces statement said the offensive was focused on the village of Baghouz.
The group, backed by U.S. air power, has driven the Islamic State from large swaths of territory it once controlled in northern and eastern Syria, confining the extremists to a small pocket of land near the border with Iraq.
Scores of Islamic State fighters are now besieged in two villages, or less than once percent of the self-styled caliphate that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, thousands of civilians, including families of Islamic State fighters, left the area controlled by the extremists.
"The decisive battle began tonight to finish what remains of Daesh terrorists," Bali said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State.
"The battle is very fierce," he later said. "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."
Bali did not say how long they expect the battle to last.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Syrian Democratic Forces fighters are advancing "cautiously" due to mines planted by Islamic State gunmen. It said U.S.-led coalition warplanes are giving cover to advancing fighters.
U.S. President Donald Trump predicted Wednesday that the Islamic State will have lost all of its territory by next week.
"It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate," Trump told representatives of the 79-member, U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that the group has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to less than 2 square miles in Syria, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. But activists and residents say the Islamic State still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The U.S. military has warned the group could stage a comeback if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased.
The Observatory said that since the Syrian Democratic Forces began its offensive against the Islamic State in the area on Sept. 10, some 1,279 extremist gunmen and 678 forces fighters have been killed. It said 401 civilians, including 144 children and teenagers, have been killed since then.
Earlier Saturday, Islamic State militants attacked Syrian Democratic Forces fighters near an oil field in the country's east, triggering airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
The Observatory said 12 Islamic State gunmen attacked the forces and clashed with them for several hours until most of the attackers were killed early Saturday. It said 10 attackers were killed, while two managed to flee.
Other activist collectives, including the Step news agency, reported the attack, saying some of the attackers used motorcycles rigged with explosives.
The fighting was concentrated near al-Omar field, Syria's largest.