A US-backed militia in Syria said thousands of people are still believed to be inside the last ISIL enclave as it sought to flush out fighters with air strikes and shelling.
Tens of thousands of dishevelled women, children and men have streamed out of a small pocket in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border in recent weeks – and they still keep coming.
The huge numbers have flummoxed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and slowed down its offensive aimed at dealing a knock-out blow to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS)
At an SDF outpost inside Baghouz on Sunday, white smoke rose above the enclave as the sound of air strikes and shelling rang out. A large blaze ravaged the makeshift encampment where holdout ISIL fighters are making a last stand.
The Kurdish-led force, backed by US-led coalition warplanes, has rained fire down on ISIL for a week, leading thousands of fighters and family members to surrender.
But SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told a news conference that – according to the latest group of fighters who left the pocket – “an estimated 5,000 people” are still holed up inside.
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He cautioned, however, the SDF was not been able to verify that figure.
Those fleeing the village have previously reported widely inconsistent figures on the number of people still inside, ranging from thousands to a few hundred.
Surrenders and evacuations
The SDF spokesman said there was no clear timeline for the end of the operation, estimating it may take several more days at least before ISIL is driven out.
“I hope it won’t take more than a week but this is a personal estimate,” he said in the village of Sousa in eastern Syria.
Gabriel said nearly 30,000 ISIL members and their relatives have surrendered to US-backed forces since January 9, including more than 5,000 fighters.
An additional 34,000 civilians were evacuated from the ISIL redoubt over the same period, he said.
The exodus has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Kurdish-run camps for the displaced further north, where civilians have been transported.
More than 1,300 combatants have been killed and about 520 captured in special operations by the SDF since the battle for Baghouz started, Gabriel said.
They include Europeans, Turks, Chinese, Iraqis and Syrians.
ISIL has launched a series of suicide bombings in recent days to hamper the SDF advance.
On Friday, ISIL launched three suicide attacks outside Baghouz, killing six people as they fled the village.
Ali Khalaf Ibrahim, an SDF fighter, said fighters were putting up a strong defence.
“Several times they tried to infiltrate [SDF positions] with explosive belts but they were intercepted” by SDF fighters, he said.
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At the height of its brutal rule, ISIL controlled territory in Syria and Iraq the size of the United Kingdom, with a population of millions.
The total capture of Baghouz by the SDF would mark the end of the cross-border “caliphate” it proclaimed more than four years ago.
But ISIL still retains a presence in eastern Syria’s vast Badia desert and has sleeper cells in the northeast.
Baghouz is the latest front in the Syrian war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people since it started in 2011.