The US president denies the decision to leave small ‘peacekeeping group’ amounts to a U-turn on troop withdrawal pledge.
Trucks carrying civilians left ISIL’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria on Friday hours after coalition air raids meant to pressure the fighters targeted the area on the banks of the Euphrates River.
Reporters near the front line at Baghouz saw dozens of trucks driving out full of civilians.
Most on board were women and children, although there were some men, their faces covered with chequered scarves.
The trucks were escorted by gun-mounted pick-up trucks belonging to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As the convoy passed, automatic gunfire could be heard in the distance and coalition aircraft flew overhead.
The final assault
The Kurdish-led SDF surrounding the patch of land has been unable to carry out a final assault on the last enclave held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group because of the presence of the civilians.
Some 300 ISIL fighters along with civilians believed to be mostly their families, according to The Associated Press news agency, have been under siege for more than a week in the tent camp in Baghouz, near the Iraqi border.
Reuters news agency says 7,000 civilians were also holed up with the fighters, citing Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF’s media office.
As the trucks left the area, Bali told Reuters that thousands more civilians still remained inside the village.
A full evacuation of civilians was required to bring about a final defeat of ISIL in Baghouz, he told Reuters earlier on Friday.
“If we succeed in evacuating all the civilians, at any moment we will take the decision to storm Baghouz or force the terrorists to surrender,” he said.
Bali told AP the coalition carried out air raids on Friday to pressure the fighters into allowing civilians to leave.
The SDF hopes to complete the civilian evacuations by Saturday.
‘Hungry and dirty’
In the past few weeks, nearly 20,000 people had left Baghouz through a humanitarian corridor, leaving the ISIL holdout on foot, but the fighters then closed the passage and no civilians left for a week until Wednesday, when a large group was evacuated.
Bali said that screening had determined that most of those evacuated on Wednesday were not from Syria.
“The majority are Iraqi and from countries of the former Soviet Union, but there are also Europeans among them,” he told AFP.
David Eubank, the leader of the Free Burma Rangers volunteer aid group, said the women and children trucked out were “very hungry and dirty”.
They included “many French women”, as well as others from Australia, Austria, Germany and Russia, and one woman from Britain, he told AFP.
Human Rights Watch urged the SDF and the US-led coalition supporting it to make protecting civilians a priority.
“Civilians leaving Baghouz is a relief but it should not obscure the fact that this battle appears to have been waged without sufficient consideration to their wellbeing,” the New York-based watchdog’s counterterrosim director, Nadim Houry said.
Recapturing Baghouz would mark an end to the territorial rule of ISIL’s self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across a third of both Syria and Iraq, but the armed group is still seen as a major security threat.
It has steadily turned to guerrilla-style warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River – a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States will leave “a small peacekeeping group” of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a US pullout, the White House said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal.
Trump in December ordered a withdrawal of the 2,000 troops, saying they had defeated ISIL in Syria.