US-backed Kurdish-led forces in northeastern Syria have captured 400 ISIL fighters who were trying to escape the armed group’s last enclave in Deir Az Zor, according to a military commander for the Kurdish group.
A senior commander for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also said on Wednesday that hundreds more Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters surrendered from the last shred of territory they control in the village of Baghouz.
The fighters left Baghouz as part of an evacuation that also included civilians, but it was not yet clear how many had given themselves up voluntarily, the commander said.
The evacuations came as the US-backed forces slowed down their latest push on Baghouz , which lies east of the Euphrates river,to allow civilians to leave the tiny enclave.
|The families of ISIL fighters are believed to be among the latest civilians to flee the last tiny area under the group’s control [Bulent Kilic/AFP]
There were no signs of combat on Wednesday a lull that appeared to allow for evacuations from the ISIL-held pocket less than a square kilometre.
The SDF has said this is the final move against ISIL and the US-backed forces have alternated between heavy fighting and air raids, and pauses to allow people to come out.
Since February 20, more than 10,000 people have left the pocket, producing dramatic scenes of women shrouded in black and many children climbing off trucks in the desert to be screened and searched.
They were then taken to a camp for displaced persons to the north in Hasakah’s al-Hol, while suspected fighters were moved to detention facilities.
The overcrowded al-Hol camp has now become home to more than 55,000 people, many of whom emerged from Baghouz weak, tired, and hungry.
Aid agencies in the area are struggling to cope with the influx, according to NGOs, including Save the Children.
Capturing Baghouz, an eastern Syrian village on the bank of the Euphrates River, would cap four years of international efforts to roll back the armed group.
ISIL ‘will remain’
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, angry civilians evacuating from Baghouz chanted “Islamic State will remain,” underscoring the defiance of ISIL fighters and their supporters even as their defeat looms.
Associated Press journalists positioned across from the ISIL-held pocket saw lines of pick-up trucks, motorcycles and people walking on foot, in what appeared to be a group evacuating.
|People ride in a truck after being evacuated out of the last territory held by ISIL fighters outside of Baghouz village in Syria’s Deir Az Zor province [Andrea Rosa/AP Photo]
A group of women seen at a reception area in the desert, set up for screening purposes by the SDF, were screening them, were rowdy, aggressive and defiant, praising ISIL and screaming angrily at journalists.
They pointed their fingers at the group and screamed: “Islamic State will stay, God is great, God is great, Islamic State will stay.”
A 30-year-old Iraqi woman said her one-month-old baby, who was sick, died overnight in the reception area from the cold.
“I didn’t want to leave except to treat her,” the woman who identified herself as Umm Fatima said.
She cursed the SDF and said: “The Islamic State will remain and expand, God willing,” and walked away.
A group of men were seated on the ground, under the watchful eye of SDF fighters, many of them covering their faces with checkered scarves.
Many among those leaving Wednesday appeared to be wives and children of ISIL fighters. But also among those who emerged were 13 Yazidi children from Iraq, looking dusty, dirty and in a state of shock.
At least 75 men also came out, heading straight to the interrogation area.
The scenes of surrender, humiliation and anger highlighted the desperation of the group as their last bastion teeters on the edge of collapse.
The SDF announced a military operation to liberate Baghouz in September, but has held off on a full-blown assault after it became apparent that a huge number of civilians were still inside.