BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Sunday more than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, had flooded out of Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria since a final assault to capture it began over two months ago.
FILE PHOTO: Surrendering families of Islamic State militants in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah/File Photo
SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told reporters that 29,600 people, the majority of them families of Islamic State fighters, had surrendered since the U.S.-backed forces led by the Kurdish YPG laid siege to Baghouz and its hinterland on the Euphrates River.
Among them were 5,000 militants, the SDF said.
Another 34,000 civilians were evacuated from Baghouz, the last shred of territory held by the jihadists who have been driven from roughly one third of Iraq and Syria over the past four years, Gabriel said.
Former residents from the region say many of the civilians who left the Baghouz area in recent weeks were Iraqi Sunnis with close tribal ties on the other side of the border in Deir al-Zor, a Sunni heartland.
They sought sanctuary in Syria for fear of revenge attacks by the Iraqi Hashd al Shaabi, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq who drove the militants from their areas, the former residents said.
Another SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told Reuters only around a hundred militants and their families had surrendered overnight in the spot where hardline insurgents have been mounting a desperate last-stand defense.
“We had expected the surrender of a large number of terrorists and their families but only a small group came out,” Bali said.
Artillery bombardment of Baghouz, along with airstrikes, resumed on Sunday afternoon after a lull in fighting, a Reuters journalist there said, with smoke billowing over the enclave.
The SDF said that 1,306 “terrorists” had been killed alongside many who were injured in the military campaign that began on Jan. 9, while 82 SDF fighters had been killed and 61 injured.
The SDF said another 520 militants were captured in special operations in the last Islamic State bastion – a few villages surrounded by farmland where jihadists and their followers had retreated as their “caliphate” was driven from once vast territories.
Former residents say hundreds of civilians have been killed in months of heavy aerial bombing by the coalition that have razed many of the hamlets in the area along the Iraqi border.
The coalition says it take great care to avoid killing civilians and investigates reports that it has done so.
The SDF has mostly transferred the tens of thousands who have fled Islamic State’s shrinking territory in recent months to a camp at al-Hol in the northeast.
A senior International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) official said last Monday an estimated 20,000 Iraqi women and children in the camp were expected to be sent home within weeks or months.
The United Nations says the camp now holds around 67,000 people, 90 percent of them women and children – well beyond its capacity. Camp workers say they do not have enough tents, food or medicine.
Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Rodi Said; Editing by Toby Chopra and Ros Russell