More civilians leave militants’ final enclave
OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria — Small trucks carrying disheveled men, women and children left the Islamic State’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria in an escorted convoy on Friday, hours after U.S.-led coalition air strikes meant to pressure the militants targeted the area on the banks of the Euphrates River.
At least 36 trucks and two buses were seen carrying civilians through a humanitarian corridor from the militants’ last patch of territory in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. They were escorted by gun-mounted pick-up trucks belonging to the U.S.-backed fighters who have delayed their final assault on remaining militants, pending the exit of civilians. As the evacuation was taking place, automatic machine-gun fire could be heard in the distance and coalition aircraft flew overhead.
From a self-proclaimed “caliphate” straddling large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq that they seized in 2014, the militants have lost all but a tiny speck in Baghouz. Some 300 Islamic State militants, along with hundreds of civilians believed to be mostly their families, have been under siege for more than a week in a tent encampment in the village.
A spokesman for the U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mustafa Bali, said there were coalition air strikes and intermittent clashes earlier Friday with the militants, meant to pressure them into allowing the last civilians to leave.
In the past few weeks, nearly 20,000 people had left Baghouz through the humanitarian corridor, leaving the Islamic State holdout on foot, but the militants then closed the passage and no civilians left for a week until Wednesday, when a large group was evacuated. The displacement has overwhelmed camps in northern Syria hosting them, and at least 60 people previously evacuated from the militants’ shrinking territory have died of malnutrition or exhaustion.
Bali suggested many civilians were still inside, in caves and tunnels under the tents as well as surrounding homes and buildings.
Few believe, however, that ending the group’s territorial rule will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq.
The Trump administration, which abruptly announced in December that it was pulling out of Syria, said Thursday that it will keep 200 U.S. troops in the country for now
Civilians exit the back of a truck, part of a convoy evacuating the last territory held by Islamic State.