US-backed fighters trucked out civilians from the last speck of the Islamic State group’s dying “caliphate” in Syria on Friday, eager to press on with the battle to crush the jihadists.
More than four years after IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, and declared a “caliphate”, they have lost all of it but a tiny patch in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
More than 40 trucks carrying men, women and children left the enclave on Friday, AFP correspondents at a position of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces outside the village reported.
Most were women and children, their clothes caked in dust, but the passengers also included men with their faces wrapped in chequered scarves.
Women clung to the railings of the trucks, while the hair of younger girls blew in the wind, as they left the enclave in the second such large-scale evacuation in three days.
On the back of one of the trucks, three men covered their faces with their hands, apparently not to be caught on camera.
Asked what the situation was like inside IS’s last scrap of territory, a young man replied: “Not good”.
On the roof of one of the trucks, an old man with a thick white beard wearing a red and white checkered scarf on his head yelled down: “There is an ill man with us.”
SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said more than 2,000 people were estimated to still be inside the pocket, and more trucks were expected to bring them out.
– ‘War or surrender’ –
Once the evacuations have ended, the jihadists will have to decide whether to continue defending the less than half a square kilometre (a fifth of a square mile) they still hold, he said.
“They will be faced with a choice: war or surrender,” Afrin said.
Earlier on Friday, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said he hoped civilian evacuations could be completed by Saturday.
The Kurdish-led SDF evacuated 3,000 people on Wednesday — mostly women and children — but trucks left near empty on Thursday.
Bali said that screenings had determined most of those evacuated on Wednesday were foreigners.
“The majority are Iraqi and from countries of the former Soviet Union, but there are also Europeans,” he said.
David Eubank, the leader of the Free Burma Rangers aid group, said they included “many French women”, as well as others from Australia, Austria, Germany and Russia, and one woman from Britain.
Human Rights Watch urged the SDF and the US-led coalition supporting it to make protecting civilians a priority.
“Witnesses described harrowing conditions in the last months, with lack of food and aid forcing them to eat grass and weeds to survive,” it said.
Around 44,000 people — mostly civilians — have streamed out of IS’s shrinking patch territory since early December, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Once the SDF have weeded out potential jihadists from each batch of new arrivals, civilians are trucked further north to Kurdish-run camps for the displaced.
They arrive “extremely hungry and dehydrated” and many of them require urgent medical care, the International Rescue Committee said.
The IRC said 69 people, mostly children, had died on the way to the Al-Hol camp or shortly after arriving in the past few weeks.
“Two thirds of the deaths are of babies under one year old,” it said, including one who died Friday during the six-hour drive.
– US ‘peacekeepers’ –
The battle for Baghouz is now the only live front in Syria’s war, which has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.
Any SDF victory would accelerate a planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria announced in December by US President Donald Trump.
Syria’s Kurds have expressed fear that a full pullout would leave them exposed to a long threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey.
But the White House said Thursday the US military will keep “a small peacekeeping group of about 200” in Syria after the withdrawal.
The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria welcomed the move.
It is “very important to maintain stability and protect our region from the Turkish threats, and ensure that terrorism will not be back,” foreign affairs official Abdulkarim Omar said.
IS once imposed its brutal ideology on an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, attracting thousands from abroad.
But some of those foreigners have been killed, while the SDF holds hundreds more.
The Kurds have repeatedly urged their governments to take them back, largely without success.
Syria’s Kurds have requested their repatriation, but foreign governments have been reluctant.
On Thursday, the father of Hoda Muthana, 24, sued to bring her home after the Trump administration declared she was not a US citizen.
Shamima Begum, 19, faced being left stateless after Britain revoked her citizenship, and Bangladesh, where her parents are from, said it not want her.
Beyond Baghouz, IS retains a presence in the vast Syrian desert, and continues to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.