More surrenders from IS Syria bastion as end nears


Baghouz (Syria) (AFP)

Kurdish-led forces Tuesday said more people were surrendering from the Islamic State group's last scrap of territory in Syria, after overnight air raids and shelling ravaged jihadist outposts.

A ragged tent encampment in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz is all that remains of a once-sprawling IS "caliphate" declared in 2014 across large swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have been trying to crush holdout IS fighters for weeks but the mass outpouring of men, women and children from the riverside hamlet has bogged down their advance.

Backed by the US-led coalition, the SDF renewed their assault on Sunday after warning remaining IS fighters that time was up for surrenders.

Airstrikes and shelling have since pummelled Baghouz for two nights in a row, killing scores of fighters and prompting hundreds of jihadists and their relatives to surrender.

"There was fierce fighting." Ali Cheir, an SDF unit commander, told AFP from a rudimentary outpost inside the village.

"The objective of our advance is to terrorise IS fighters so they surrender, and for the civilians to come out," said the 27-year-old fighter.

The frontline was quiet Tuesday morning, hours after the airstrikes and rocket attacks on Monday night engulfed the last IS pocket in flames.

The commander said the SDF had slowed its offensive after daybreak to allow for jihadists and their relatives to turn themselves in.

"There are people handing themselves over now and we have completely halted fire so that they can surrender," he said.

Another SDF official who asked not to be named said that his force and the coalition only target IS positions at night.

- 'Target reached'-

Beyond the frontline, warplanes were heard rumbling overhead, as the crackle of gunfire rang from the outskirts of the IS encampment.

On a hilltop overlooking the embattled village on Monday night, an AFP correspondent saw a blaze ravaging the riverside encampment.

SDF fighters launched several artillery shells from hundreds of metres (yards) away.

Rawan, an SDF fighter, tracked one of his shots as it whizzed past a field. "Excellent... target reached," he rejoiced, as it hit a fence.

Coalition warplanes pounded the jihadist redoubt with 20 airstrikes, destroying armoured vehicles and arms caches, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said.

He said US-backed forces clashed with jihadists on several fronts, killing nearly 40 IS fighters.

Since December, almost 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.

The UN's humanitarian coordination office OCHA said the numbers arriving in one Kurdish-run camp for the displaced from Baghouz had slowed to a trickle since the SDF resumed their offensive.

Only 30 families had arrived in Al-Hol in 48 hours, it said Monday, in stark contrast to previous weeks during which thousands were pouring into the crammed settlement on a daily basis.

OCHA said some 4,000 people have been trucked to Al-Hol since March 7, pushing the camp's population to more than 66,000 people.

"The most recent arrivals to Al-Hol have been in a notably poorer physical state than those reaching the camp in previous weeks," it said.

It said around 113 people -- two-thirds of them children under five -- have died en route to the camp or shortly after arriving since December.

-'Battles not over'-

At the height of its brutal rule, IS controlled a stretch of land in Syria and Iraq the size of the United Kingdom.

The total capture of the Baghouz camp by the SDF would mark the end of the cross-border "caliphate" it proclaimed five years ago.

But beyond Baghouz, IS retains a presence in eastern Syria's vast Badia desert and sleeper cells in the northeast.

The jihadists have continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held territory in recent months, and the US military has warned of the need to maintain a "vigilant offensive".

The group released a video late Monday allegedly showing jihadists in Baghouz, quietly defiant in the face of the advancing SDF.

"If we had thousands of kilometres and now we only have some kilometres left, it is said we have lost -- but God's judging standard is different," said a man named Abu Abdel Adheem.

"The battles are not over," he said, sitting on the ground in a circle with two men and a young boy in a hooded jacket.