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World  

IS 'taking their last breath'

From a self-proclaimed caliphate that once spread across much of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group has been knocked back to a speck of land on the countries' shared border. In that tiny patch on the banks of the Euphrates River, hundreds of militants are hiding among civilians under the shadow of a small hill — encircled by forces waiting to declare the territorial defeat of the extremist group.

A spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the militants said Sunday that the group is preventing civilians from leaving the area, closing a corridor from which nearly 40,000 residents have managed to escape since December.

"They are taking their last breath," said Dino, an SDF fighter deployed at a base near the front line in the village of Baghouz, about 2 kilometres from the militants' last spot.

An Associated Press team visited the base Sunday, escorted by the SDF, driving past mostly one-story rural houses that were destroyed, a reminder of the cost of the battle. Occasional airstrikes and artillery rounds by the U.S.-led coalition supporting the SDF, meant to clear land mines for the advance, could be seen in the distance.

The road to the base passes through a number of villages and towns from which IS were uprooted in recent weeks.

In Hajin, a major centre for the militants that fell to the SDF in December, some residents have begun to return but the town remains battered by the fighting and airstrikes. Small shops selling tools and construction material have sprung up.

For weeks, the militants fought desperately for their shrinking territory. Once in control of about a third of Syria and Iraq, they now are down to what SDF officials describe as a small tented village atop a network of tunnels and caves. But they are holding on to hundreds of civilians — some of them possibly hostages — taking cover among them at the edge of Baghouz, the village in eastern Deir el-Zour province.

"Regrettably, Daesh have closed all the roads," preventing civilians from leaving, said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led SDF, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

The extremists may include high-level commanders, and the presence of possible captives could explains the slow final push, they added.

As civilians trickled out of the enclave in recent weeks, the SDF and coalition officials screened them. Women and children were transferred to camps miles away; men suspected of links to the militant group were taken into custody at other facilities.

SDF commanders said some of the hostages taken from their force have been freed in recent days. Fighters at the base said one of their colleagues was set free in the last two days.

Khatib Othman, an SDF fighter, came back from the front line a few days ago to take a break. His brother, also an SDF fighter, was taken hostage by IS in the last weeks of fighting. He is now believed to be held in Iraq as a suspected militant and negotiations are underway to free him.

"We want to take revenge. We will not let the blood of our martyrs go to waste," Othman said. "We are waiting for the civilians to go out, and we will go in and attack. It is a matter of days. They are under siege, no food and no water. They are encircled from four sides. They have to give up."



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