More civil­ians leave mil­i­tants’ fi­nal enclave

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD - By Sarah El Deeb Sarah El Deeb is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

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

Felipe Dana / As­so­ci­ated Press

Civil­ians exit the back of a truck, part of a con­voy evac­u­at­ing the last ter­ri­tory held by Is­lamic State.

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