AL-OMAR OIL FIELD BASE, Syria (AP) — The offensive on the last enclave held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria has been blunted by the discovery of hundreds of civilians still living there, a commander with the Kurdish-led force fighting the extremists said Friday.
The U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, launched the offensive to liberate the IS-held village of Baghouz a week ago, after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them foreign wives of IS militants, were evacuated through a corridor from the area in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.
Adnan Afrin told The Associated Press that in the last three days, IS militants brought up hundreds of civilians from underground tunnels to make the SDF and U.S.-led coalition aware of their presence.
He estimated that around 1,000 civilians, including women and children, are still in the area. He added that militants were hiding among them and using them as human shields.
“This was a surprise. We did not imagine there would be this number of civilians left,” Afrin said.
He said they were likely to be families of IS militants, but their discovery nonetheless has blunted the offensive. “We do not want to cause a massacre against civilians in the last (IS) pocket,” he said.
A blitz of airstrikes and shelling last week was believed to signal the end of the campaign against IS in its last toehold in Syria. Thousands of people, including many foreign fighters and their families, emerged from the area amid ferocious fighting as the SDF closed in from three sides under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
IS militants are now clinging to their last square kilometer (mile) of land in Baghouz. The anticipated declaration of victory against the group, however, has been delayed by this discovery of a large number of civilians in the area.
Organized access to the front line has been restricted for journalists amid security concerns, particularly after the injury of an Italian photographer earlier this week.
U.S.-backed forces are now conducting precision operations targeting the militants’ outposts in and around the village of Baghouz and working to clear surrounding villages of remaining fighters, SDF officials said.
The capture of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the conclusion of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq, their so-called “caliphate,” which at the height of the extremists group’s power in 2014 covered nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
President Donald Trump has said the group is all but defeated. He announced in December that he would withdraw the 2,000 American troops in Syria.
It is not clear whether the Islamic State group is holding any civilian prisoners in the enclave, beyond their own families.
“We aim to save any prisoners, but we have no information about them. They can be among the civilians, or in underground prisons, we have no information,” said Afrin, the SDF commander.