SDF says assault on last ISIL-held area in Syria to be over soon

Final batch of civilians evacuated from Baghouz before renewed military activity, says SDF leader Mustafa Bali.

    The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have advanced into the final territorial enclave held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) where heavy fighting is under way.

    The Kurdish-led SDF expect the battle to be over "soon", the head of the SDF media office, Mustafa Bali, said on Saturday. 

    The SDF were advancing on two fronts into the tiny enclave at Baghouz in Syria's Deir Az Zor province at the Iraq border. Three SDF fighters had been wounded so far, the media office said in an update circulated to reporters.

    The SDF began a final assault to capture the enclave at Baghouz on Thursday, aiming to wipe out the last vestige of the territorial rule that once spanned a third of Syria and Iraq.

    Civilians evacuated

    The SDF clashed with the ISIL fighters on Friday after the last batch of civilians left the territory, Bali said in a statement.

    "Those left inside are fighters who do not wish to surrender," he told the AP news agency.

    The smallest batch of evacuees, just over 200, came out of the pocket in around six trucks used to transport sheep. About 10 trucks sent to the perimeter of the ISIL pocket came back empty, and drivers said no more evacuees came out after hours of waiting.

    The evacuees on Friday included wounded men but were mostly women and children. There were Russians, Indonesians, Bosnians, Daghestani, Kazakhs, Egyptians, Syrians, and Iraqis. They dragged along a few belongings and distraught children.

    Umm Mohammed, a 38-year-old Syrian, left Baghouz with her three children on Friday but her husband stayed behind in support of ISIL "There are many fighters and families inside," she told AP. "ISIL is weak only in Baghouz but elsewhere it is expanding and growing."

    The military campaign to uproot the fighters from the eastern banks of the Euphrates River began in September, pushing them down towards this last corner in the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border.

    The military operation was halted on February 12 as the SDF said a large number of civilians and hostages were holed up in the territory, which sits atop caves and tunnels where they had been hiding. 

    The remaining speck of ISIL-controlled land in Baghouz village is also along the Euphrates from one side and the desert near the Iraqi border from the other. Thousands of civilians were living in a tent encampment and houses along the riverside.

    Desperate conditions

    Over the last two weeks, thousands of civilians have been evacuated, many of them women and children in desperate conditions. The only aid group at the evacuation site, the Free Burma Rangers, estimated that at least 10,000 civilians have left the ISIL pocket since February 20, in trips organised by the SDF.

    The evacuees, who included ISIL family members, said the food was running low and clean water and medicine were scarce. Despite its demise, many defended what remained of the group's territorial hold, which once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

    As they trickled out, SDF and coalition officials screened them. Women and children were transferred to camps miles away. Men suspected of links to the armed group were taken into custody at other facilities.

    US President Donald Trump said on Thursday that ISIL has lost "100 percent" of the territory it once controlled in Syria, but officials estimate there are hundreds of ISIL fighters left in the small patch of territory in Baghouz, and that they will likely fight till the end.

    "The battle to finish off what is left Daesh has started," SDF commander Adnan Afrin said on Friday, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.

    Afrin said he expected "resistance" from the remaining fighters who are likely to deploy all their weapons, including suicide bombers.

    'Milestone'

    The capture of the last pocket still held by the ISIL fighters in Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the group's hold on territory in Syria and Iraq - their so-called "caliphate" that at the height of the group's power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.

    It would allow President Trump to begin withdrawing the estimated 2,000 US troops from Syria, as he declared in December he would do. Though last week he partially reversed course and agreed to keep a residual force of perhaps a few hundred troops as part of an international effort to stabilise northeastern Syria.

    The resumption of military operations against ISIL breaks a days-long standoff while the civilians were being evacuated. In the last week alone, 13,000 people, most of them women and children, arrived at the al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province which now houses approximately 45,000 people, according to the United Nations.

    In a statement on Friday, the UN cited reports that more than 84 people, two-thirds of them young children under five years of age, have died since December on their way to al-Hol camp after fleeing the group.

    "Many of the arrivals are exhausted, hungry and sick," according to Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at a news briefing in Geneva.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies