Hundreds of people including Islamic State militants have evacuated their last foothold in eastern Syria, hours after US-backed Syrian fighters said they had slowed their advance because the extremists were using civilians as human shields.
Despite the hindrance, Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said the battle to retake Baghouz, the last territory in Syria held by IS, was “going to be over soon”.
Later on Monday, an SDF official said 500 people, including fighters, had surrendered and evacuated the village of Baghouz and its surrounding areas. The official added that 200 more are expected to evacuate the village later on Monday.
Dozens of men, women and children climbed hills on foot and were seen getting into small trucks after they were searched by SDF fighters manning the evacuation corridor.
Shortly before sunset, more than 20 cars came out of the area carrying men, women and children some of whom appeared to be foreigners.
Some of the men were of fighting age and appeared able while others carried crutches. One woman covered in black flashed a victory sign as she left.
An SDF official said many IS gunmen are still inside and prepared to fight. “This is not the end. We may be on the threshold of a new battle,” he said.
He said those who left the IS-held area on Monday include people from Bosnia, Turkestan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Syria and a man who claimed to be French.
An air strike followed but it was not clear what it targeted.
An SDF spokeswoman said the offensive has slowed down but pressure is being kept up away from the corridor to prevent fighters from infiltrating or sabotaging the area.
The US-backed forces resumed their offensive on Baghouz on Friday after a two-week pause to allow for the evacuation of civilians.
Retaking the sliver of land would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to end IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” that once straddled a vast territory across Syria and Iraq.
“We’re slowing down the offensive” due to a small number of civilians held as human shields, Mr Bali said.
The previous night, an SDF statement said the Kurdish-led forces would continue their military campaign “to take control of the last IS-held pocket in Baghouz and to liberate the remaining civilians being used as human shields.”
“In order not to harm them, we are advancing slowly but we assert that the battle of Baghouz will end in a short period of time,” it said.
IS militants are desperately fighting to hang on to the last tiny piece of land in eastern Syria, deploying snipers and guided missiles and using dug-out tunnels for surprise attacks.
On Sunday, black smoke billowed over the besieged speck of land in the village after air strikes hit several targets.
SDF fighters had tightened the noose on the militants the day before, advancing from two fronts and cutting off access to the river in Baghouz.