IS Militants Hiding Behind Citizens

OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) -- U.S.-backed Syrian fighters battling Islamic State militants in their last foothold in Syria said they were forced to slow down their push on Monday because the extremists are using civilians as human shields.

But despite the slowing, Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, tweeted that the battle to retake Baghouz, the last territory in Syria held by the Islamic State group, was "going to be over soon."

The U.S.-backed forces resumed their offensive on Baghouz last Friday, after a two-week pause to allow for the evacuation of civilians.

Retaking the sliver of land would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to end IS' self-proclaimed "caliphate" that once straddled a vast territory across both Syria and Iraq.

"We're slowing down the offensive" due to a small number of civilians held as human shields, Bali said. The previous night, an SDF statement said the Kurdish-led forces would continue their military campaign "to take control of the last ISIS-held pocket in Baghouz and to liberate the remaining civilians who are being used as human shields." ISIS is an alternative acronym for the extremist group.

"In order not to harm them, we are advancing slowly but we assert that the battle of Baghouz will end in a short period of time," it said.

IS militants are desperately fighting to hang on to the last tiny piece of land in eastern Syria, deploying snipers and guided missiles and using dug-out tunnels for surprise attacks.

On Sunday, black smoke billowed over the besieged speck of land in the village after airstrikes hit several targets. SDF fighters had tightened the noose on the militants the day before, advancing from two fronts and cutting off their access to the river in Baghouz.

(KA)