Civilians evacuated from last IS enclave

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter stands guard as people leave the IS-held pocket in Baghuz on lorries (20 February 2019)Image copyright

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The Syrian Democratic Forces said it did not know how many people the lorries were carrying

Lorries have begun evacuating civilians from the last village in Syria still held by the Islamic State (IS) group.

Journalists on the front line saw at least 15 vehicles carrying men, women and children leaving Baghuz.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, which is besieging the area, said it did not yet know if any IS fighters were among the passengers.

On Tuesday, the UN expressed concern about the fate of some 200 families reportedly trapped in Baghuz.

Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said they were apparently being actively prevented from leaving by IS and continued to be subjected to intense bombardment by SDF and US-led coalition forces.

She called on the warring parties to provide safe passage to those who wished to flee, and to protect as much as possible those who wished to remain.

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Some 20,000 civilians have already fled Baghuz in recent weeks and been taken to camps

A convoy of about 50 lorries arrived on the outskirts of Baghuz after Ms Bachelet spoke, amid rumours of a deal to evacuate the wives and children of militants. But none of the vehicles had departed by nightfall, according to Reuters news agency.

US-led coalition aircraft reportedly carried out two strikes in the area before the first lorries left on Wednesday.

“We have special forces working on the evacuation of civilians. After many days of trying, we were able to evacuate the first batch today,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told AFP news agency.

Mr Bali said he did not know how many people were being brought out, or whether they included any IS militants, but that it would become clear once the lorries reached a nearby SDF screening point.

“There are still civilians inside [Baghuz],” he added.

On Tuesday, the SDF said that its fighters would attack the IS pocket once it had evacuated all the civilians who wanted to leave. The militants, it warned, had only two options – surrender or die.

Five years ago, IS controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) of territory stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq. It proclaimed the creation of a “caliphate”, imposing its brutal rule on almost eight million people and generating billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

Now, an estimated 300 militants are holed up inside about 0.5 sq km of land.

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