Pressure builds to get civilians out of last IS-held enclave

AL-OMAR OIL FIELD BASE, Syria (AP) – Dozens of trucks arrived on Tuesday at the outskirts of a besieged enclave held by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in eastern Syria, signalling renewed efforts to evacuate hundreds of civilians trapped in the militants’ last patch of territory along the Euphrates River.

A spokesman for the United States (US)-backed Syrian militia that is spearheading the fight against IS said a military operation aimed at ousting the extremists from the enclave will begin if they don’t surrender.

Such an operation would take place after separating or evacuating civilians from the militants, estimated to be about 300 combatants, said Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Just before sundown on Tuesday, more than 40 trucks headed toward Baghouz, the last village where IS extremists are trapped with hundreds of civilians. There was no sign of the civilians returning by dark, and on the other edge of the IS-controlled territory, more than one airstrike hit, apparently increasing the pressure on those holding out. Gunfire echoed over the hills in the distance as soldiers from the SDF waited for the expected evacuation.

“We are working on either separating the civilians or evacuating them and raiding the place,” Bali told The Associated Press.

United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters stand outside a building used as a temporary base near the last land still held by Islamic State (IS) extremists in Baghouz, Syria on Monday. – AP

The IS group has been reduced from its self-proclaimed kingdom that once spread across much of Syria and Iraq at its height in 2014 to a speck of land on the countries’ shared border. In that tiny pocket on the banks of the river, the militants are hiding among civilians in the shadow of a small hill, encircled by forces waiting to declare the territorial defeat of the extremist group.

Bali’s comments signalled an easing of a standoff that has lasted for more than a week. Nearly 20,000 civilians had left the shrinking area in recent weeks before the evacuation halted last week when the militants closed all the roads out of the tiny area.

AP journalists saw dozens of trucks moving to the tip of a humanitarian corridor used in past weeks. That corridor had been deserted for the last week after thousands fled through it.

About 40 civilians, including a French woman, left the enclave on Tuesday morning, apparently after paying smugglers, said a member of the Free Burma Rangers, a volunteer medical group.

Adnan Afrin, a commander with the SDF, said a number of civilians and some fighters have turned themselves in, and that the trucks went to the corridor to get them. He said those who surrendered included Europeans and Americans. He reported some clashes on the other side of the enclave between SDF fighters and IS militants who want to continue the battle.

Fellow SDF commander Zana Amedi said his group gave a final warning to the remaining militants to surrender. In a Twitter post, he said most of them are seriously wounded or sick.

A United Nations (UN) official said she is concerned about the condition of the some 200 families trapped in the enclave.