Beirut, May 14 (AFP) US-backed fighters were advancing today against Islamic State group jihadists hiding out in a small sliver of desert in eastern Syria, the force and a monitor said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has been bearing down on the small IS-held zone along the Euphrates River since May 1.

Today, SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told AFP the forces were securing the village of Baghuz, captured after overnight clashes and the first to be seized since the operation began.

“It is now being cleared of anything left behind by Daesh, including mines, and we are looking for any IS members hiding in tunnels or other locations,” Gabriel said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

“We will set up defensive positions so that we can completely surround Daesh along the Euphrates River,” he said.

Baghuz lies on the river’s eastern bank, a few hundred metres from the Iraqi border.

Gabriel said the operation was carried out in coordination with Iraqi government forces and the US-led coalition.

The SDF has already driven IS out of large parts of northern and eastern Syria, including the onetime jihadist capital of Raqa, with help from the coalition’s air strikes, weapons and special forces advisors.

At the beginning of May, the SDF announced it would pursue IS in its final desert holdout in east Syria between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border.

It has already cleared around 64 square kilometres since then, the coalition said on social media. The coalition published images of General Joseph Votel, the commander of US troops in the Middle East, shaking hands with SDF commanders.

“Coalition and US Generals meet our SDF partners to gain a better understanding of the fight against Daesh in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” it wrote.

After several months of relatively few air strikes in Syria, it ramped up its bombing raids at the beginning of this month to back the SDF’s ground operations.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, confirmed the SDF had captured Baghuz after fierce clashes overnight.

It said 18 IS fighters were also killed in coalition strikes and fighting in Al-Bahra, a village further north along the river.

The monitor said IS still controlled three main villages in the area: Hajjin, Sousa, and Al-Shaafa. (AFP) SMJ SMJ

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.