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 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s last sliver of territory in the region.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said heavy clashes were ongoing on Tuesday after hundreds fled the battle zone overnight.
The SDF believes 400 to 600 fighters from ISIL, also known as Daesh and ISIS, remain holed up in the enclave, including many hardened foreigners who are expected to fight to the death.
“We are seeing fierce resistance from the Daesh fighters,” SDF field commander Adnan Afrin told Reuters news agency on the outskirts of Baghouz.
“Most are foreigners, Iraqis, Europeans. There are a lot of Turks. We can hear them on the walky-talkies.”
He said ISIL now held only 1-square kilometre of the village.
The SDF 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 spokesman Sean Ryan said the US-backed forces were facing a fierce pushback by the armed group.
“The progress is slow and methodical as the enemy is fully entrenched and ISIL fighters continue to conduct counter-attacks,” said Ryan. “The coalition continues to strike at ISIL targets whenever available.”
The US-led coalition said it hit a mosque used by ISIL to direct attacks and employ suicide car bombs against the SDF.
“This mosque lost its protected status when ISIS deliberately chose to use it as a command and control centre,” the coalition’s deputy commander, Major-General Christopher Ghika, said in a statement.
While about 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, hundreds remain trapped inside.
“The bombing was unimaginable, we ran from one place to the other,” said Hala Hassan, 29, who escaped with her five children.
She said “fighters from all nationalities” were in the enclave. “There was no food. We ate grass from the ground like sheep… Daesh [ISIL] had blocked the roads and smugglers wanted thousands of dollars.”
Heiko Wimmen from the International Crisis Group said launching air strikes against such a small area was probably “not appropriate” but he added the US-led coalition doesn’t have many options with ISIL soldiers entrenched in the village.
“How do you extract fighters like that who are determined to fight to the finish from a built-up urban area,” Wimmen told Al Jazeera.
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”.
Bali said the SDF responded after the ISIL launched a counter-attack earlier in the day. He said there were “dozens of SDF hostages” held by the ISIL.
US President Donald Trump said on Monday 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 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 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.