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IS group clings to last scrap of ‘caliphate’ in Syria

Rodi Said, REUTERS | A female fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walks near people fleeing the last patch of Syrian territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group in the village of Baghouz.

Defiant Islamic State (IS) group fighters hunkered down in a riverside camp in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz on Friday as US-backed forces prepared to expel them from the last scrap of their vanishing "caliphate".

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The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces pushed into Baghouz, a tiny hamlet near the Iraqi border where IS fighters are making a desperate last stand.

Thousands of men and women have poured out of the pocket of territory near the Iraqi border in recent days, suitcases and dust-covered children in tow.

The extremist group created a proto-state across large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, ruling millions of people, but has since lost all of it except a tiny patch in Baghouz by the Euphrates River.

The last IS group fighters and their families are cornered by the advancing US-backed forces in an improvised encampment on the water's edge.

Footage obtained by AFP showed men, as well as women draped in black, walking among a sea of pickup trucks and rudimentary tents scattered across the uneven riverbank.

This handout image grab from a video released by the Free Burma Rangers on March 7, 2019 shows a makeshift camp in the IS group's last patch of territory in Baghouz.
This handout image grab from a video released by the Free Burma Rangers on March 7, 2019 shows a makeshift camp in the IS group's last patch of territory in Baghouz. Free Burma Rangers, AFP

The images, filmed by the Free Burma Rangers aid group, showed a motorbike darting between a dark earth berm topped with clumps of reeds and a line of temporary shelters.

Just a few metres from the river, a few figures sat behind a wall of breeze-blocks erected among a thick bed of reeds, shielding them from the other side of the waterway, which is held by regime troops.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by air power of a US-led coalition, are waiting for all civilians to be evacuated before moving in to retake the last scrap of IS-held territory.

Jihadists among fleeing civilians

SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said no civilians had been evacuated on Friday, but he expected more to flow out on Saturday.

"The situation has completely stalled except for some intermittent clashes," he added.

In the neighbouring desert hamlet of Sousa, nearly destroyed by earlier battles to push out the IS group, Kurdish women fighters from the SDF gathered to mark International Women's Day.

Amid bullet-pocked homes and gaping holes in roads hit by air strikes, the fighters waved flags for the Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) and performed a traditional dance around a fire to music blasted out of a loudspeaker.

More than 7,000 people, mostly women and children, have left the Baghouz enclave this week, into territory held by the Kurdish-led SDF. They included a stream of wounded men limping on crutches or supported by others.

Around a tenth of the nearly 58,000 people who have fled the last IS group bastion since December were jihadists, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

It is unclear how many people remain inside, but the SDF has been surprised by the seemingly endless exodus from the final jihadist redoubt.

‘We will seek vengeance’

The skeletal and dishevelled figures shuffling out of the smouldering ashes of the "caliphate" may look like a procession of zombies, but many appear to have their devotion intact.

At an SDF position outside Baghouz this week, women covered from head to toe in black stood in front of journalists, pointing their index fingers to the sky in a gesture used by IS supporters to proclaim the oneness of God.

"The Islamic State is here to stay!" they cried in unison.

One woman added: "We will seek vengeance, there will be blood up to your knees."

General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, warned Thursday that many of those being evacuated are "unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised".

He stressed the need to "maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organisation".

Beyond Baghouz, IS group fighters are still present in Syria's vast Badia desert and have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

Syria's Kurds hold hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for the terrorist group, along with their family members, but their home nations have been reluctant to take them back.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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