March 4, 2019 12:00 pm

Syria: Hundreds flee as last IS stronghold shrinks

An unknown number of Islamic State fighters remain holed up in the group's last remaining enclave in Baghouz, Syria, a military source said.

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Hundreds of people including fighters from the Islamic State group evacuated their last foothold in eastern Syria Monday hours after U.S.-backed Syrian fighters said they were forced to slow their advance because the extremists are using civilians as human shields.

But despite this hinderance, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces Mustafa Bali tweeted that the battle to retake Baghouz, the last territory in Syria held by the Islamic State group, was “going to be over soon.”

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Later Monday, an SDF official said some 500 people, including fighters, have surrendered and evacuated the village of Baghouz and its surrounding areas. Ciyager, the nom de guerre of an official with the Kurdish-led SDF, added that 200 more people are expected to evacuate the village of Baghouz later Monday.

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Dozens of men, women and children climbed hills on foot and were later seen getting into small trucks after they were searched by SDF fighters manning the evacuation corridor.

An SDF spokeswoman said the offensive has slowed down but pressure is being kept up away from the corridor to prevent fighters from infiltrating or sabotaging the area. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press.

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The U.S.-backed forces resumed their offensive on Baghouz last Friday, after a two-week pause to allow for the evacuation of civilians.

Retaking the sliver of land would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to end IS’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” that once straddled a vast territory across both Syria and Iraq.

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“We’re slowing down the offensive” due to a small number of civilians held as human shields, Bali said. The previous night, an SDF statement said the Kurdish-led forces would continue their military campaign “to take control of the last ISIS-held pocket in Baghouz and to liberate the remaining civilians who are being used as human shields.” ISIS is an alternative acronym for the extremist group.

“In order not to harm them, we are advancing slowly but we assert that the battle of Baghouz will end in a short period of time,” it said.

IS militants are desperately fighting to hang on to the last tiny piece of land in eastern Syria, deploying snipers and guided missiles and using dug-out tunnels for surprise attacks.

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On Sunday, black smoke billowed over the besieged speck of land in the village after airstrikes hit several targets. SDF fighters had tightened the noose on the militants the day before, advancing from two fronts and cutting off their access to the river in Baghouz.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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