Push to retake last IS scrap on hold as civilian exodus slows


Omar Oil Field (Syria) (AFP)

US-backed Syrian forces awaited orders Sunday to relaunch their push against the Islamic State group's final scrap of territory as an earlier exodus of civilians from the redoubt slowed to a trickle.

The Syrian Democratic Forces renewed their offensive against the jihadists on March 1 after a weeks-long pause to empty the bombed-out bastion of non-combattants.

But the Kurdish-led fighters and their US-led coalition backers were forced to again dial down the push early last week, as thousands more dusty women, children and men streamed out of the dying "caliphate".

A fragile ceasefire has since held on the front lines, interrupted by sporadic clashes and occasional air strikes and artillery fire.

"Yesterday only about 100 people left, including three Chinese Uighurs and three Moroccan women," SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali told AFP.

No one came out of the redoubt on Friday, he said, adding that IS was preventing people from leaving.

He said a group of lorries had been deployed to a search point outside the redoubt in the hope that evacuations would resume.

Tens of thousands of people have poured out of the shrinking redoubt since December and the assumption had been that few families remained.

But last week's exodus raised concerns there could still be many more people left in the pocket, which has been reduced to a tattered encampment pushed flush along a bend in the Euphrates River.

The numbers have flummoxed the Kurdish-led forces and bogged down their offensive to finish off the once sprawling proto-state.

Analyst Mutlu Civiroglu, on the ground in eastern Syria, said IS was deliberately buying time.

The jihadists "decide how many people will leave, and they are benefiting from the international coverage", he said.

"They are likely preparing for something, but it's still unclear what that is."