A convoy of trucks evacuated dozens of people including women and children from Islamic State’s last Syria redoubt Wednesday, February 20, bringing the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces closer to retaking the last sliver of the “caliphate.”
The implosion of the jihadist proto-state which once spanned swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq has left Western nations grappling with how to handle citizens who left to join ISIS.
Around 15 trucks carrying men, women and children exited the last patch of ISIS territory in eastern Syria, according to AFP correspondents.
Women wearing face veils, several children – including young veiled girls – as well as men were seen inside the vehicles.
Their exact number and nationalities were not immediately clear.
The convoy passed a position of the SDF, which is spearheading the battle against ISIS, after leaving the last ISIS holdout in the village of Baghuz, near the Iraqi border.
SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said the trucks were evacuating a first batch of civilians, but some remained inside.
“After many days of trying, we were able to evacuate the first batch today,” Bali told AFP.
On Tuesday, SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel told The Defense Post that progress had been halted because of the number of women and children still being held by the jihadist group.
“The last remnants of ISIS are surrounded by SDF forces in a very small pocket in one neighborhood of Baghuz village. Currently, we are withholding operations in order to be able to rescue and secure the safety and get out prisoners and … civilians who are captured by ISIS,” he said.
The number of people who quit the holdout would become clear once the convoy arrived at a nearby SDF screening point, he said.
“We don’t know if ISIS fighters are among them, we will know at the screening point,” Bali said.
Backed by airstrikes by a U.S.-led Coalition, the SDF have trapped ISIS fighters in less than half a square kilometer (0.2 square miles) in Baghuz.
The SDF have slowed their advance in recent days to protect civilians ahead of a final push to defeat the jihadists.
Thousands of people – mostly women and children related to ISIS members – have streamed out of Baghuz in the past weeks, but the flow had largely stopped in recent days.
On Tuesday, the SDF said several ISIS fighters and dozens of civilians handed themselves over to the Kurdish-led force.
Spokesperson Adnan Afrin said a convoy of trucks had entered Baghuz to transfer ISIS fighters and their relatives out to SDF-held territory.
The spokesperson said foreigners were among those who left the pocket, but did not say where they were from, or if they were civilians.
The Free Burma Rangers volunteer group said 40 people had exited the enclave on Tuesday, including a French woman with two infants.
The United Nations on Tuesday said around 200 families, including many women and children, were “reportedly trapped” in the last ISIS holdout.
Hundreds of alleged jihadists have been detained after fleeing the pocket in recent weeks, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
Among them, several foreign jihadists have emerged, including German Martin Lemke and Frenchman Quentin Le Brun.
At its height, the ISIS “caliphate” spanned an area the size of the United Kingdom, with the group implementing its brutal rule on millions.
After years of battling ISIS, the SDF hold hundreds of foreigners suspected of being ISIS fighters, as well as related women and children.
Syria’s Kurds have long urged their home countries to take them back, but many European nations have been reluctant.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday urged European powers to take back hundreds of their citizens who fought for ISIS in Syria.
The United Kingdom, however, has rebuffed Trump’s appeal and is expected to revoke the citizenship of a teenager who fled London to join the jihadists aged just 15, a lawyer for her family said Tuesday.
Shamima Begum, 19, is being held in a refugee camp in northeast Syria.
At the weekend, she gave birth to her third child, and appealed to British authorities to show “compassion” by allowing her and her baby to return.
The United States said Tuesday it was weighing options on an American woman detained in Syria who says she wants to return home.
Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old from Alabama who became a prominent online agitator for the extremists, said in an interview published Sunday with British daily The Guardian that she had been brainwashed online and “deeply regrets” joining the movement.
While declining to discuss Muthana’s case, U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said that the status of US citizens detained in Syria “is by definition extremely complicated.”
Beyond Baghouz, ISIS retains a presence in large swathes of the Badia desert and has claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held areas.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
With reporting from AFP