co-author: Tony Gamal-Gabriel
Syria (AFP) – US-backed forces said Sunday time was up for Islamic State group jihadists hunkering down in their eastern Syrian holdout and resumed their assault on the pocket.
The extremists once ruled over millions in a swathe of Syria and Iraq, but they have since lost all that land except for a riverside encampment in the village of Baghouz.
The Syrian Democratic Forces has slowed down its months-long campaign against IS in recent weeks to allow civilians and surrendering jihadists out from their shrinking enclave.
But the Kurdish-led alliance, which is backed by air strikes of a US-led coalition, on Sunday said a deadline for surrenders had passed and the assault would resume.
“We have not seen any movement of civilians inside so the Syrian Democratic Forces have resumed their military operations against the group,” SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said.
The head of the SDF press office Mustefa Bali said air strikes had started up again on IS positions, and fighters on both sides were locked in violent clashes.
“The timeline (we gave) ISIS to surrender themselves is over,” he said earlier on Twitter, using another acronym for IS.
“Our forces have received orders for military action to finish off what is left of the terrorists in Baghouz,” a village near the Iraqi border, he said.
– Exodus –
Since December, nearly 59,000 people have left the last IS redoubt, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around a tenth of them suspected jihadist fighters.
Thousands of dust-covered women, children, and men have trundled out of the village of Baghouz in the past weeks, but that exodus has slowed to a trickle in recent days.
Suspected jihadists — including several wounded — have also been detained after making their way out in the crowd.
On Saturday, “only about 100 people left, including three Chinese Uighurs and three Moroccan women”, Bali told AFP earlier.
No one came out of the redoubt on Friday, he said.
It is unclear how many people remain inside the ragged camp on the edges of the Euphrates River.
AFP journalists on Saturday saw figures wearing the long black clothes of women stroll inside what remains of their doomsday camp, and bearded men zip down dirt tracks on motorbikes.
The SDF pushed into the encampment some 10 days ago, discovering spent ammunition lying between zig-zagging trenches, scorched pots and pans, and scraps of clothes left behind.
At the height of its brutal rule, IS controlled a stretch of land in Syria and Iraq the size of the United Kingdom.
The jihadists had their own courts, currency and school curriculum, and meted out bloody punishment to anyone who disobeyed their authoritarian rule.
– Symbolic end? –
The total capture of the Baghouz camp by the SDF would be a symbolic blow to IS, and mark the end of the cross-border “caliphate” it proclaimed in 2014.
But beyond Baghouz, IS maintains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has claimed a series of deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.
The SDF launched their battle to expel IS from the east of the Euphrates in September.
Throughout the battles, they have detained hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for IS, as well as members of their families.
Their home countries have been weary of repatriating them, and Britain has stripped several of their citizenship.
Two women of Pakistani heritage have become the latest targets, a newspaper reported Sunday, raising questions about the fate of their children.
Reema Iqbal, 30, and her sister Zara, 28, left east London for Syria in 2013, and between them now have five boys under the age of eight, The Sunday Times newspaper said.
US President Donald Trump in December stunned his allies when he declared his country would pull out all 2,000 American troops from Syria because IS had been defeated.
The White House has however since said it would maintain a “peace-keeping” force of 200 soldiers in the north of the war-torn country.
The standoff in Baghouz is the latest chapter in Syria’s grinding civil war, which started eight years ago with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Since then, it has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions.
© Agence France-Presse
Featured Photo: “A fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) takes aim with his Kalashnikov assault rifle after seeing a man walking towards his position in the town of Baghouz, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on March 9, 2019 (AFP Photo/BULENT KILIC).”