At least 16 civilians, including seven children, have been killed in air attacks launched by a US-backed coalition fighting to push the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group fighters from their last enclave in eastern Syria, a war monitor has said.
Coalition fighter jets fired missiles in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Baghouz, a village in Deir Az Zor province, as part of a fierce battle to seize the final ISIL pocket in the country.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said heavy clashes were ongoing on Tuesday after hundreds fled the battle zone overnight.
There, some 600 ISIL fighters remain in a 4sq km area near the Iraqi border on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.
The SDF, supported by a US-led coalition, announced a final push to retake Baghouz late on Saturday. Since then, some military advances have been made, but ISIL snipers and landmines have slowed the ground forces down.
Coalition spokesperson Sean Ryan said the US-backed forces were facing a fierce fightback.
“The progress is slow and methodical as the enemy is fully entrenched and ISIL fighters continue to conduct counterattacks,” he said.
“The coalition continues to strike at ISIL targets whenever available.”
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Turkey’s Gaziantep, said the air attacks that killed civilians took place on Monday, into the early hours of Tuesday morning on the outskirts of the village.
“These air strikes are designed to stop ISIL fighters from fleeing the area,” Khan said.
While about 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, hundreds remain trapped inside.
According to Khan, there has been a pause in the fighting.
“We’re hearing the SDF forces and ISIL fighters are negotiating a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians trapped in the area to come out safely,” he said.
“However, that hasn’t happened yet. It’s clearly in the interest of ISIL fighters to keep civilians within Baghouz village … In effect, they’re being held hostage,” he added.
The sound of explosions echoed dozens of kilometres away and columns of dark grey smoke could be seen from the SDF territory.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said heavy clashes were “ongoing to pressure ISIL into surrendering”.
The Observatory said 12 SDF men and 19 ISIL fighters were killed in the fighting on Monday.
Bali said the SDF responded after the ISIL launched a counterattack earlier in the day. He said there were “dozens of SDF hostages” held by the ISIL.
US President Donald Trump said on Monday that the coalition may declare victory over ISIL in the region in the coming days.
“Our brave warriors have liberated virtually 100 percent of ISIL [territory] in Iraq and Syria … soon it will be announced, soon, maybe over the next week, maybe less, but it will be announced we have 100 percent,” he told a rally in the US city of El Paso.
In December, Trump had announced a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria, saying ISIL had been “beaten”.
Backed by coalition air attacks, the SDF alliance has been battling to eliminate ISIL from Deir Az Zor since September.
The armed group overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but a series of military offensives have reduced that territory to just Baghouz.
Since December, tens of thousands of people, mostly women and children related to ISIL fighters, have fled the shrinking ISIL area into the SDF territory.
The US-backed forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential fighters for questioning.
On Monday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from the ISIL areas.
Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.
Two French women told the AFP news agency they paid smugglers to take them out of the battered ISIL-held holdout of Baghouz, but Iraqi fighters had prevented other foreigners from leaving.
“We have nothing to eat, only Iraqis have food,” one of the women said.
“They’re allowed to go outside while we’re locked inside … I just hope to keep my children alive because my husband died in an air strike,” she said.
Once the “caliphate” is declared over, the fight will continue to eliminate ISIL sleeper cells, the SDF and their allies have said.
“After Baghouz, clearing operations will have to take place as well,” Ryan said.
ISIL still retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has claimed a series of deadly attacks by sleeper cells in the SDF-held areas.