BAGHOUZ, Syria -- U.S.-backed Syrian forces took control Tuesday of an encampment held by the Islamic State in eastern Syria, after dozens of militants surrendered overnight, a spokesman said. Several militants believed to have been involved in a January bombing that killed four Americans in northern Syria were among those captured by the Kurdish-led forces.
The taking of the Islamic State encampment was a major advance but not the final defeat of the group in Baghouz, the last village held by the extremists where they have been holding out for weeks under siege, according to Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
An unknown number of militants still clung to a tiny sliver of land about 200 yards by 200 yards trapped between the Euphrates River and the encampment now held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, officials in the force said.
The militants have been putting up a desperate fight, their propaganda machine working even on the brink of collapse. On Monday, the Islamic State issued a video showing its militants furiously defending the encampment, a junkyard of wrecked cars, motorcycles and tents. In the footage, they shoot nonstop with AK-47s and M-16s from behind trucks, vehicles and sand berms.
A group of children could be seen at one point amid the fighting.
"My Muslim brothers everywhere, we did our best, the rest is up to God," a fighter said to the backdrop of black smoke rising from behind him.
The complete fall of Baghouz would mark the end of the Islamic State's self-declared territorial caliphate, which at its height stretched across much of Syria and Iraq. For the past four years, U.S.-led forces have waged a destructive campaign to tear down the caliphate. But even after Baghouz's fall, a scattered presence and sleeper cells threaten a continuing insurgency.
The battle for Baghouz has dragged on for weeks -- and the encampment has proven a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.
The siege has also been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghouz, most of them families of Islamic State members. Over past weeks they have been flowing out and the sheer number who emerged -- nearly 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials -- took the Kurdish-led force by surprise.
In the past two weeks, many militants appeared to be among those evacuating. But Syrian Democratic Forces 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.
In the seizure Tuesday of the encampment, hundreds of wounded and sick militants were captured and have been evacuated to nearby military hospitals for treatment, Bali, the Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman, said in a Twitter post. Still, he cautioned, "this is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight."
There were conflicting reports from Syrian Democratic Forces commanders on the ground about the extent of the Islamic State surrender.
Commander Rustam Hasake said Syrian Democratic Forces forces advanced on four fronts Monday night and were inside the camp when the last militant 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 militants continue to hold a tiny area in an open patch of land in the village, outside the encampment.
Bali, in a separate Twitter post Tuesday, said the Syrian Democratic Forces 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 after technical surveillance by the the Kurdish-led forces. He did not elaborate on the number of suspects or whether they were among the most recent militants to surrender.
The Islamic State 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.
Information for this article was contributed by Maamoun Youssef and Zeina Karam of The Associated Press.
A Section on 03/20/2019
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