NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (AFP) — US-backed forces said several jihadists and dozens of civilians quit the Islamic State group’s last patch of territory in Syria Tuesday, and warned remaining fighters should surrender or face death.
Backed by airstrikes by the US-led coalition, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have trapped the jihadists in a segment of Baghouz village that is less than half a square kilometer (a fifth of a square mile).
“Dozens of civilians and some fighters have handed themselves over,” SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin told reporters at the nearby Al-Omar oil field.
He said a convoy of trucks had entered Baghouz on Tuesday to transfer jihadists and their relatives out to SDF-held territory.
Outside Baghouz, an AFP correspondent saw a convoy of trucks driving towards the village.
The SDF have slowed down their offensive as they seek to evacuate civilians before a final push to defeat IS, which seized swaths of Syria and Iraq in 2014 and declared a cross-border caliphate.
Afrin said the departures from IS-held territory on Tuesday were the first by civilians in four days.
He said foreigners were among those who left the pocket, but their nationalities “have not yet been determined” and it was not clear if these foreigners were civilians or fighters.
Thousands of people — mostly women and children related to IS members — have streamed out of IS turf in recent weeks.
Afrin said some diehard jihadists were still refusing to surrender and “many civilians remain” in the final jihadist holdout.
‘Surrender or face death’
The United Nations earlier expressed concern over “the situation of some 200 families, including many women and children, who are reportedly trapped” in the IS holdout.
“Many of them are apparently being actively prevented from leaving by ISIL,” it said in a statement, using another acronym for IS.
An AFP correspondent near the frontline heard three airstrikes on Tuesday.
Afrin said the “offensive has not stopped” but the SDF have slowed their advance to protect civilians, “who are now on the frontlines.”
“The positions we are storming are the ones where we have detected activity by IS fighters,” he told AFP.
“But there are positions where we can’t advance or even strike because civilians are among the fighters,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday, another SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said his forces were preparing for a final push.
“We are working on secluding and evacuating civilians and then we will attack. This could happen soon,” he said.
IS fighters “have only two options, either they surrender or they will be killed in battle,” Bali said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, reported ongoing negotiations between the SDF and jihadists, who are allegedly demanding safe passage out of the Baghouz pocket.
But SDF officials denied any negotiations are taking place.
‘Nightmare is over’
The SDF on Monday said a victory announcement would be made this week.
“In a few days we will announce a great victory over the largest terrorist organization that waged war on the world,” senior official Zeidan al-Assi said in a statement.
Dino, a 26-year old fighter who has fought jihadists for years, on Monday said he was glad the battle was drawing to an end.
“The nightmare is over. We have saved the people” from the IS group, he said.
But beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries.
In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and the jihadists have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.
US President Donald Trump stunned allies in December when he announced all 2,000 American troops would be withdrawn from Syria as IS had been defeated.
That withdrawal plan is expected to be accelerated once the last IS redoubt falls.
Any such pullout would leave Syria’s Kurds exposed to a long threatened Turkish assault, and the prospect has already forced them to mend ties with Damascus after years of seeking self-rule in the northeast of the country.
Almost eight years into a civil war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, Baghouz is the main front in Syria’s war.
But sporadic regime shelling has also lately targeted a northwestern region of Idlib held by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, despite the area being protected from a massive regime offensive by a September ceasefire deal.
On Tuesday, regime rocket fire killed four civilians including a child in the town of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib, the Observatory said.