Hundreds of people, including women and children, have been evacuated from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group’s (ISIL, also known as ISIS) last holdout in Syria, bringing US-backed forces closer to retaking the last sliver of the “caliphate”.
AFP correspondents reported on Wednesday seeing at least 17 trucks carrying men, women and children out of the last patch of ISIL territory in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz.
THe Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Adnan Afrin said most of the hundreds who have left were civilians, but also included ISIL fighters.
“Civilians and fighters from many nationalities have surrendered,” he said, adding that “there was a group of ISIL fighters hidden among the civilians… but as far as we know, our colleagues have arrested them”.
An official from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Thursday that the civilians remaining in ISIL territory did not leave on Thursday, despite earlier expectations that they would.
SDF: evacuation of civilians from last ISIL enclave in east #Syria expected to be completed Thursday; we will engage remaining ISIL fighters once evacuation complete
— Zeina Khodr (@ZeinakhodrAljaz) February 21, 2019
At least 130 fighters handed over to Iraq
The US-backed Syrian forces have also handed over at least 130 Iraqi members of ISIL to Iraqi authorities, Iraqi security officials said on Thursday.
However, a spokesperson for the SDF denied the claim.
Naim al-Kaood, the head of the security department in Iraq’s Anbar province, which borders Syria, told AFP news agency that the fighters were “wanted” by the Iraqi government.
Iraqi forces “were handed by the Syrian Democratic Forces 130 Daesh terrorists wanted by the Iraqi government,” he said.
An Iraqi security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, told AP news agency on Thursday that the SDF handed over more than 150 Iraqi ISIL members to Iraq.
The Kurdish-led SDF are holding more than 20,000 Iraqis suspected of ISIL membership in prisons in northern Syria, the official added.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan reporting from Gaziantep, Turkey said that the wives and children of ISIL fighters are being sent to al-Hol camp in the SDF-controlled area where they are separated from civilians and kept in another camp waiting to be processed by their home country or by the SDF.
“[As for the fighting], what we’re waiting for is for the all-clear from SDF forces and then they’ll go into the village,” Khan said.
“The village is almost completely destroyed but there are tunnels underneath the village and that’s where the ISIL fighters are hiding out. All the ISIL propaganda suggests that this is the hardcore of fighters who will fight to the death.”
The Baghouz enclave’s recapture by the SDF would spell the territorial defeat of ISIL and allow US President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do, opening a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year civil war.
Backed by US-led coalition air raids, the SDF have trapped ISIL fighters in less than half a square kilometre of Baghouz.
The SDF have slowed their advance in recent days to protect civilians ahead of a final push to defeat ISIL.
“There are still large groups of civilians inside, as well as ISIL fighters,” Adnan said.
Thousands of people – mostly women and children related to ISIL members – have streamed out of Baghouz in the past weeks, but the flow had largely stopped in recent days.
The United Nations on Tuesday said around 200 families, including many women and children, were “reportedly trapped” in Baghouz.
Hundreds of alleged members, including foreigners, have been detained after fleeing the pocket in recent weeks.
At its height, the ISIL “caliphate” spanned an area the size of the United Kingdom, with the armed group imposing their brutal rule on millions.
Beyond Baghouz, ISIL retains a presence in the Badia desert and has claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held areas.
After years of battling ISIL, the SDF holds hundreds of foreigners suspected of being ISIL fighters, as well as their family members.
The Kurdish forces have long urged the fighters’ home countries to take them back, but many European nations have been reluctant.
The implosion of the proto-state, which once spanned swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, has left Western nations grappling with how to handle their citizens who left to join ISIL.
Britain, however, has rebuffed Trump’s appeal and is expected to revoke the citizenship of a teenager who fled London to join ISIL when she was just 15, a lawyer for her family said Tuesday.
Shamima Begum, 19, is being held in a refugee camp in northeast Syria gave birth to her third child on Sunday.
On Wednesday, she said she was shocked by the decision and was considering applying to settle in the Netherlands, the homeland of her husband.
At odds with its demands of other countries, the US said Wednesday it would refuse entry to a US-born ISIL member who wants to return from Syria.
Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old from Alabama, had also run away to join ISIL and in late 2014 posted a picture of four passports, including an American one, with the caption: “Bonfire soon, no need for these anymore.”
Muthana is among the many hundreds held in camps in northeastern Syria, and she desperately wants to go home. She told The Guardian she had been brainwashed online and “deeply regrets” joining the movement.
However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that she “does not have any legal basis, no valid US passport, no right to a passport, nor any visa to travel to the United States”.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.