NEAR BAGHOUZ, SYRIA – U.S.-backed forces evacuated over 40 truckloads of people from the Islamic State group’s last Syria redoubt on Monday, as they sought to clear out civilians before a final push to crush the jihadis.
The Syrian Democratic Forces slowed down their offensive on the final enclave due to the presence of civilians, with just a scrap of the IS “caliphate” remaining from a territory that once spanned Syria and Iraq.
An AFP correspondent saw at least 46 trucks crammed with men, women and children approaching an SDF outpost, 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the jihadi bastion.
One vehicle was packed with women clad in black and men who covered their faces. Wounded people were also among the latest evacuees.
Holdout IS fighters and civilians, mostly relatives of jihadis, are trapped inside less than half a square kilometer in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish-led SDF evacuated nearly 5,000 men, women and children from the jihadi redoubt on Wednesday and Friday, but none over the weekend.
Earlier Monday, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said thousands remained inside the IS pocket.
“According to what we heard from those who have left, there are nearly 5,000 people still inside,” said Bali.
At the SDF screening point outside the village, SDF fighters expressed hope that Monday’s arrivals would be the last.
“We want it to be over,” said 29-year-old Mazloum.
“Every day we say, ‘today is the day,’ but we hope it will all end today and not tomorrow,” he said.
Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar said the SDF would announce the end of the IS proto-state “in the next few days.
“But this does not mean that we have eliminated terrorism, which must be eradicated at the roots,” he said.
Beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells across several countries.
In Syria it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and the jihadis have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.
Thousands of suspected IS fighters have attempted to blend in with civilians fleeing the crumbling caliphate.
According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around 46,000 people, including thousands of jihadis, have streamed out of the Baghouz pocket since early December.
The SDF screens those exiting at an outpost outside the village to weed out potential IS fighters.
After being vetted, women, children and men not suspected of belonging to the extremist group are transported north to the Kurdish-run camp of Al-Hol, while suspected jihadis are sent to SDF-held detention centers.
The Observatory on Monday said 1,400 people, mainly IS relatives, were secretly transported from orchards on the outskirts of Baghouz to neighboring Iraq during the past 24 hours.
Kurdish foreign affairs official Omar did not confirm the transfer, and denied the SDF was responsible.
“In principle, we do not hand over any person passing through our territories to Iraqi authorities or any other party,” Omar said.
Such transfers can only happen if they were trucked from Baghouz “by another party,” he explained, without specifying.
Baghdad on Sunday said the SDF have transferred 280 Iraqi nationals accused of fighting alongside IS to Iraqi authorities.
Fourteen suspected French jihadis were among those transferred, an Iraqi government source said on Monday.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh said Monday that Iraqi courts would prosecute 13 suspected French jihadis, who were turned over to Iraq after being captured by the SDF.
“Those who have engaged in crimes against Iraq and Iraqi installations and personnel, we are definitely seeking them and seeking their trial in Iraqi courts,” he told a news conference in Paris.
The mass outpouring of men, women and children from the IS foothold has overwhelmed the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp, six hours north of Baghouz.
“The international community is not currently taking responsibility towards the large number of people leaving the last IS pocket, especially children,” Omar said.
The International Rescue Committee said Friday that new arrivals had pushed the camp’s population to over 45,000, exacerbating already dire conditions at the crammed facility.
At least 78 people, mostly children, have died on the way to the camp or shortly after arriving in recent weeks, the IRC said.
A warehouse fire on Friday caused by a gas cylinder explosion “destroyed 200 family tents” and five larger ones and injured 16 workers, it said.
The U.N.’s humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, warned Friday that the camp was struggling to keep up with the flood of evacuees.