U.S.-backers forces fighting to take back the last Daesh outpost in Syria say they are facing difficulties defeating the group

Baghzouz - U.S.-backed forces fighting to recapture the last Daesh outpost in Syria admitted on Sunday to facing difficulties defeating the extremists, saying they were being slowed by mines, tunnels and concerns over harming women and children still in the village.

The battle to capture the extremist group's last speck of territory in eastern Syria began in September and has dragged on amid an exodus of civilians from the area.

A final push by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces started on January 9, but has been paused on several occasions, mainly to allow for civilians to evacuate and fighters to surrender.

The SDF have been repeatedly surprised to discover just how many civilians were holed up in the area - a collection of tents covering foxholes and underground caves in the village of Baghouz - alongside the Daesh fighters.

In the last two weeks, many fighters appeared to be among those evacuating.

On Sunday, dozens of men and women were seen walking around the besieged Daesh encampment in Baghouz, as SDF fighters watched from a hilltop close by.

The camp, looking much like a junkyard, was littered with damaged vans and pickup trucks parked between tents where people appeared to be moving about.

He said the SDF would no longer estimate how many people remained in Baghouz but said recent evacuees told the fighting forces that another 5,000 were still inside.

US denies report it is leaving up to 1,000 troops in Syria

The United States strongly denied Sunday a report that it intended to leave almost 1,000 troops in Syria, adding plans for a residual force of around 200 troops had not changed.

The Wall Street Journal had reported Sunday that as talks with Turkey, US-backed Kurdish forces and European allies have failed to produce a deal on a "safe zone" in northeastern Syria, the US now intended to keep working with Kurdish fighters in the country.

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It quoted US officials as saying the plan could see up to 1,000 US forces spread across the country.

"A claim reported this evening by a major U.S. newspaper that the U.S. military is developing plans to keep nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria is factually incorrect," General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement.

"There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the President's direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence."

President Donald Trump had abruptly announced in December the immediate and complete withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops deployed in northeastern Syria, declaring victory against the Islamic State group. The decision prompted his defense secretary Jim Mattis to quit.

Then, under pressure from Congress and the Pentagon, he agreed to leave a residual force of some 200 US troops, which he wants to be reinforced by allies in the anti-Daesh coalition.

An objective of the international force is to guarantee the security of its Syrian Kurd allies. Turkey, a NATO member, views the Kurdish combatants as terrorists, and the Europeans fear they would be vulnerable if Ankara launched an offensive.

Syria to UN envoy: Constitution is a 'sovereign' matter

Syria's foreign minister said on Sunday that the country's constitution is a sovereign matter to be decided by the Syrians themselves without any foreign intervention.

The comments by Walid Al Moallem were made during a meeting with the United Nations' special envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson.

Pederson, who took up his post in January, arrived in Syria for meetings with Syrian officials. The envoy has said that the long-delayed formation of a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria is "a potential door-opener for the political process."

The 150-member committee is intended to represent the government, the opposition and civil society and is seen by the U.N. as key to holding free elections and ending the civil war in Syria, which entered its ninth year this week.