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US-backed Syrian forces seek to evacuate civilians from IS group holdout

Delil Souleiman, AFP | Fighters of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take a rest in the frontline Syrian village of Baghouz on February 18, 2018. SDF forces have been fighting against the last shred of the Islamic State group's "caliphate".

US-backed forces Tuesday said they were trying to evacuate civilians from the Islamic State group's last dreg of territory in Syria and warned jihadists to surrender or face death.

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Jihadists defending the last scrap of their "caliphate" in eastern Syria will be "killed in battle" if they don't surrender, the Kurdish-led force said ahead of a final showdown.

But first the Syrian Democratic Forces said they would try to evacuate civilians from the group holdout.

"We are working on secluding and evacuating civilians and then we will attack. This could happen soon," SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said, declining to provide more details on the operation.

At a civilian collection point outside the village of Baghouz Tuesday, an AFP correspondent saw a convoy of trucks driving towards the village.

IS fighters "have only two options, either they surrender or they will be killed in battle," Bali said.

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IS declared a "caliphate" across large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but today just half a square kilometre (0.2 square miles) remain after various offensives.

A small hamlet of buildings in Baghouz is all that is left of the proto-state, which at its height spanned an area the size of the United Kingdom.

An SDF source told AFP the convoy of vehicles could transport civilians if any made it out of the jihadist redoubt.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, reported Tuesday ongoing negotiations between the SDF and jihadists, who are allegedly demanding safe passage out of the Baghouz pocket.

SDF officials, however, deny any negotiations with IS fighters.

'Nightmare is over'

The United Nations on Tuesday expressed concern over "the situation of some 200 families, including many women and children, who are reportedly trapped" in the IS holdout.

"Many of them are apparently being actively prevented from leaving by ISIL," the UN said in a statement, using another acronym for IS.

The frontline in Baghouz was largely quiet on Tuesday afternoon. Devastated buildings and the twisted skeletons of cars dotted the side of the road.

At the entrance of the village, the SDF had turned an embattled building into a temporary base.

Dino, a 26-year old fighter who has battled jihadists for years, said on Monday he was glad the battle was drawing to an end.

"The nightmare is over. We have saved the people" from the IS group, he said.

"The first battles were difficult. We did not know our enemy very well but today we know them intimately."

Thousands of people -- mostly women and children related to IS members -- have streamed out of IS turf in recent weeks, but no civilians have made it out in the past three days.

In past weeks, jihadists among the new arrivals have been detained, while civilians have been ferried on trucks to Kurdish-held camps for the displaced to the north.

The International Rescue Committee said Monday that 62 people, mostly children, had died on the way to the Al-Hol camp or shortly after arriving in past weeks.

'Great victory'?

An SDF official on Monday said a victory announcement would be made this week.

"In a few days we will announce a great victory over the largest terrorist organisation that waged war on the world and wreaked chaos and death everywhere," Zeidan al-Assi said in a statement.

But beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries.

In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and the jihadists have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

US President Donald Trump stunned allies in December when he announced all 2,000 US troops would withdraw from Syria as IS had been defeated.

The withdrawal plan is expected to be accelerated once the last IS redoubt falls.

Any such pullout would leave Syria's Kurds exposed to a long threatened Turkish assault, and has forced them to mend ties with Damascus after years of seeking self-rule in the northeast of the country.

Almost eight years into a civil war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, Baghouz is the main front in the conflict.

But sporadic regime shelling has also targeted a northwestern region of Idlib held by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, despite the area being protected by a massive regime offensive by a September ceasefire deal.

On Tuesday, regime rocket fire killed four civilians including a child in that jihadist bastion's town of Khan Sheikhun, the Observatory said.

(AFP)

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