Civilians evacuated from last Islamic State holdout in Syria

More Than 300 ISIS Militants Refuse To Surrender To US-Backed Syrian Forces, Try To Negotiate Exit
ISIS steps up guerrilla attacks in Syria – US-backed SDF forces
Author

23 February, 2019

Several jihadists and dozens of civilians, including foreigners, quit the last IS-held pocket in eastern Syria on Tuesday, US-backed forces said.

The stalling tactics are likely to further delay a declaration of the end of Daesh's self-proclaimed "caliphate" that the US -backed Syrian Democratic Forces were hoping to make last week.

But Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the SDF, said an operation by special forces enabled the evacuation.

The SDF, which has taken the quarter of Syria's territory east of the Euphrates from Islamic State since 2015, has said isolating civilians there from the remaining jihadists is vital.

The number of people who quit the holdout would become clear once the convoy arrived at a nearby SDF screening point, he said. But SDF officials said until the passengers were screened at a checkpoint, it would be impossible to know exactly how many there were, and if the evacuees included any IS fighters who had made a decision to surrender.

The vehicles were carrying ISIL families and other civilians who were living in Baghouz, he said, with some being transported to al-Hol camp, where humanitarian conditions are dire.

Evacuations had been halted last week when the militants closed all the roads out of the tiny area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the SDF appeared to have reached a deal with the militants.

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Backed by air strikes by a US-led coalition, the SDF have trapped ISIS fighters in less than half a square kilometer (0.2 square miles) in Baghouz.

The SDF has said isolating the civilians in the enclave at Baghouz from the remaining jihadists there is a crucial step towards the final capture of the area.

Almost five years later, that dream has been crushed by separate military campaigns in Iraq and Syria that, though backed by foreign powers, have been fought mainly by local, mostly Muslim, forces.

Some 200 families are trapped in a shrinking area of Syria still controlled by the ISIS terrorist group, whose forces are stopping some from fleeing, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday.

However, a UK-based monitoring group said it believed all the civilians and militants who were in Baghuz had left. "It is still strong, ending its military presence does not at all mean the elimination of Daesh (ISIS)", he said.

On Tuesday, government forces shelled a bakery killing at least four people, including children, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, the Observatory said.

If the SDF ends the territorial rule of ISIS, then it would allow President Trump to begin withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do.

"The crossings opened by the regime and the Russian military are claimed to be safe, but the people here are not feeling any sense of safety or stability", one resident said. A wheelchair stood empty in a crowded truck bed, where a dozen children mixed with their mothers.


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