Hundreds more people leave besieged Islamic State pocket in Syria

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Hundreds more people made their way on Wednesday out of Islamic State’s last pocket in eastern Syria, besieged by a U.S.-backed militia that has held off a final assault to allow what it says is an unexpectedly large number of civilians to leave.

FILE PHOTO: A soldier said to be from US.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces is seen firing a rifle from a rooftop towards IS targets in Baghouz, Syria, in this screen grab taken from video said to be shot March 4, 2019, and uploaded to social media website on March 5, 2019. Social Media Website/ via REUTERS

Since the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces group (SDF) announced last month it was launching a final assault on Baghouz, Islamic State fighters, family members, captives and local villagers have poured from the tiny enclave.

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there were preparations in eastern Syria to announce the end of Islamic State there.

The fall of Baghouz would mark the end of the rule of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” over populated territory, although some fighters are still hiding out in remote desert or have gone underground to wage a guerrilla insurgency.

Since Monday, hundreds of surrendering jihadist fighters have abandoned their enclave. Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition backing the SDF, nevertheless said the international force had “learned not to put any timetables on the last battle”.

Syrian military air strikes against jihadist fighters in the country’s central desert were a reminder of the constant warnings by both Arab and Western officials that Islamic State, which ruled around a third of both Iraq and Syria at its height in 2014, will continue to pose a major security threat.

An SDF source put the number of people who left the Baghouz pocket on Wednesday morning at more than 2,000. It was not clear whether this figure included only civilians. The SDF said about 6,500 people had left the area over the previous two days, including hundreds of men.

Among those who came out on Wednesday were 11 captive children from the Yazidi community. Islamic State subjected the Yazidis to mass slaughter and enslavement in what the United Nations called a genocide, after overrunning the community’s heartland of Sinjar in Iraq in 2014.

Live television footage broadcast on al-Hadath television showed an area of desert where evacuees from Baghouz had gathered, with scores of children and black-veiled women sitting on the ground or hauling luggage as they trudged along.

The large number of people leaving Baghouz, a tiny collection of hamlets and farmland on the Euphrates at the Iraqi border, appears to have taken the SDF by surprise.

On Friday the group said only Islamic State fighters remained in the area, but after a ferocious assault in the following days, it again slowed the attack to allow more civilians out.

Reporting By Rodi Said, writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff

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