BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Syrian democratic forces supported by the United States (SDF) have halted military operations against Islamic State (IS) militants holed up in the group's last enclave in eastern Syria, waiting for more civilians to be evacuated from the area on Saturday, an SDF official said.
A boy looks from a tarp truck near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 7, 2019. REUTERS / Rodi said
Thousands of people – many of whom the wives of IS fighters and their children – have been leaking from encamped encampment in Baghouz for weeks, forcing the SDF to delay the assault to wipe out the 39, last trace of the territorial domain of the jihadists.
The SDF said it wants to make sure all civilians are out of the enclave before launching the final assault. Hundreds of IS fighters have surrendered, but the SDF believes that the most hardened foreign jihadists are still in it.
"There are a number of families … military operations are now on hold for their evacuation," Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF press office, told Reuters.
The trucks used for the evacuations went to Baghouz on Saturday and four have emerged so far carrying people, a Reuters witness said.
On Friday, Bali said that the SDF would resume the assault if no other civilians had emerged by Saturday afternoon.
Those coming out of Baghouz are projected by the SDF and most are sent north to the Al-Hol camp, already overcrowded with uprooted and Iraqi people uprooted by years of war.
More than 62,000 displaced people fighting around the IS enclave have flooded the al-Hol camp, with 5,200 arriving by March 5 and 7 and thousands more, the UN said Friday.
The weather is cold and rainy and there is a shortage of tents and supplies. Dozens of children died on the way to the field. On Friday the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said that al-Hol was at the "breaking point".
"No one could have imagined that such a large number of women and children were still living in Baghouz," IRC spokesperson Misty Buswell said.
Those who arrive at al-Hol are in "extremely poor health" with malnutrition, diarrhea and skin diseases. Many of the women who arrive at the camp are pregnant or have given birth recently, IRC says.
After suddenly capturing bands of land straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border in 2014 and declaring it to be caliphate, the Islamic State has been rejected by numerous local and foreign forces in both countries, suffering severe defeats in 2017.
However, jihadists remain a threat. In Iraq they went ashore, staging waves of killings and kidnappings. In Syria, their comrades resist in remote desert areas and have carried out attacks in areas controlled by the SDF.
The Islamic State on Saturday said it had carried out a suicide attack with a car bomb near the Syrian city of Manbij to report to foreign troops who are not safe in the country. Manbij is controlled by an ally of the SDF militia.
"The crusaders on Syrian soil will know they will be observed and will not be safe while our blood is beating," said a statement published by the Amaq-affiliated press agency IS.
In an e-mail to Reuters, a spokesman for the US-led coalition in support of the SDF, Colonel Sean Ryan, denied the claim of the Islamic State that the explosion had killed three members of the United States armed forces and injured others.
Reporting of Rhodes Said in Syria; additional reports by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Written by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry and Ros Russell