Women and children arrive at an SDF screening area in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria. Image Credit: AP

Baghouz: Columns of black smoke billowed Sunday from the last small piece of territory held by Daesh militants as US backed fighters pounded the area with artillery fire and occasional air strikes shook the ground.

Commanders of the Kurdish-led fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces said fierce clashes were taking place as they advance toward the last speck of land controlled by Daesh.

Daesh Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces 02
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are holding hundreds of alleged Daesh members and relatives. Image Credit: AFP

Fires still smoldered from the area and ammunition exploded time and again, a day after an air strike hit a building, setting off a huge blast.

“It must be a main weapons depot,” said Sefqan, a commander using only his nom de guerre.

The US-backed forces resumed an offensive to recapture the tiny area in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria on Friday night, after a two-week pause to allow for the evacuation of civilians from the area.

Once the sliver of land is taken, it would mark the end of a devastating four-year campaign to end Daesh’ hold on territory in Syria and Iraq and its self-proclaimed “caliphate” that once straddled vast territory across both countries.

A few hundred Daesh militants, many of them believed to be foreign fighters, remain holed up inside Baghouz, with an unknown number of civilians.

Machineguns could be heard echoing across the territory. Associated Press journalists in Baghouz saw black smoke from an apparent strike on a barrel of fuel.

Gunfire followed another strike on the edge of the camp.

Burned vehicles could be seen, abandoned in farmland beyond the village.

Through binoculars, Daesh fighters could be seen walking around.

Overnight, machine gun tracers could be seen in the skies over Baghouz and aircraft circled overhead.

“The night for us and the morning for them,” said Abu Ghadab, another commander of the SDF.

The militants usually attack during the day as they don’t have night vision goggles while the SDF advances at night, he explained.

The US-backed fighters say Daesh militants are mostly hiding underground, in tunnels.

Meanwhile, nearly 300 Syrians suspected of belonging to Daesh have been freed because they have “no blood on their hands”, Kurdish authorities who were holding them said.

Their release was announced late Saturday by the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration of northern Syria, which said in a statement that 283 Syrians had been set free.

Tribal chiefs and other local officials had lobbied for their release.

The statement said they were men who “have no Syrian blood on their hands”, suggesting that they did not take part in any fighting.

“They had lost their way... violated the traditions of the Syrian society and the law, and some of them had been deceived... but they remain our Syrian children,” it said.

Releasing them is a gesture of “cooperation, fraternity and clemency,” said the statement posted on the website of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The prisoners were released in several areas of northern Syria held by Kurds, including the city of Raqqa, which was the de facto Syrian capital of the Daesh “caliphate”, the statement added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said it was not the first release of Daesh-linked prisoners by Kurdish authorities, but the number was particularly large this time.