Hundreds leave ISIS-held area in Syria as fighting slows down

2019-03-04 22:12


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Hundreds of people including fighters from the Islamic State group evacuated their last foothold in eastern Syria Monday hours after US-backed Syrian fighters said they were forced to slow their advance because the extremists are using civilians as human shields.

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

Later on Monday, an SDF official said some 500 people, including fighters, have surrendered and evacuated the village of Baghouz and its surrounding areas. Ciyager, the nom de guerre of an official with the Kurdish-led SDF, added that 200 more people are expected to evacuate the village of Baghouz later on Monday.

Dozens of men, women and children climbed hills on foot and were later seen getting into small trucks after they were searched by SDF fighters manning the evacuation corridor.

Shortly before sunset, more than 20 cars came out of the area carrying men, women and children some of whom appeared to be foreigners. Some of the men were of fighting age and appeared able while others carried crutches. One woman covered in black flashed a victory sign as she left.

An SDF official who goes by Mervan The Brave said many IS gunmen are still inside and prepared to fight. "This is not the end. We maybe on the threshold of a new battle," he said.

He said those who left the ISIS-held area on Monday include people from Bosnia, Turkestan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Syria and a man who claims he's French.

An airstrike followed but it was not exactly clear what it targeted.

An SDF spokesperson said the offensive has slowed down but pressure is being kept up away from the corridor to prevent fighters from infiltrating or sabotaging the area. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to speak to the press.

The US-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 ISIS' self-proclaimed "caliphate" that once straddled a vast territory across both Syria and Iraq.

The extremist group continues to be a threat, however, with sleeper cells in scattered desert pockets along the porous border between the two countries.

"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.

ISIS 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.

Read more on:    syria  |  isis

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