BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian forces are clearing two villages in eastern Syria of remaining Islamic State militants who are hiding among the local population, and detaining others attempting to flee with the civilians, the U.S.-led coalition said Thursday.
The clearance operations are taking place in the villages of Shajalah and Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, a coalition statement said, hours after scores of militants from the Islamic State group — including many foreign fighters — surrendered to U.S.-backed fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces on Wednesday night.
The developments brought the Kurdish-led force closer to taking full control of the last remaining area controlled by the extremists, a Kurdish official and activists said.
Çiyager Amed, an official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, confirmed that a number of IS fighters who had been holed up in the village of Baghouz gave themselves up, without giving numbers. He said most of those remaining were Iraqis and foreigners and that few civilians remained in the tiny sliver of land still in IS hands, although women and children are continuing to trickle out of the enclave.
The capture of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end 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 militant group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
President Donald Trump has said the group is all but defeated, and announced in December that he would withdraw all American forces from Syria.
A coalition official, however, reiterated on Wednesday that IS continues to pose a threat to the security of the region even if their hold on territory is ending.
“While ISIS is on the verge of collapse, and the end of the physical caliphate is at hand it does not signal the end of this campaign,” said U.K. Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, using another acronym for IS. “We will pursue them until that threat is eliminated.”
The coalition statement said SDF forces are detaining IS militants who are attempting to escape among the civilians fleeing the fighting in Baghouz. Those “arriving to be screened are the wives of ISIS fighters, some of whom sustained gunshot wounds while fleeing from ISIS,” Ghika said.
Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, said hundreds of women and children came out Wednesday. He said the fighters who remained appeared to be among the IS elite who have lots of experience and are fighting “fiercely.’
“They also don’t have other options. Either to surrender or die,” Bali said.
Amid the exodus of people from the last pocket of territory held by IS, scores of foreign women married to IS militants have come out, including French, Canadian and other nationals. They are being held in SDF-run camps in eastern Syria, which have been overwhelmed with newcomers and lacking enough food, water and medical care.
Among those is a British teenager, Shamima Begum, who ran away from Britain four years ago to join the Islamic State extremists. The 19-year-old was found by The Times newspaper in a refugee camp in northern Syria. According to the story published Thursday, she is nine months pregnant and worried about the health of her unborn child.
“In the end, I just could not endure anymore,” she said, describing the death from illness and malnutrition of her first two children. “Now all I want to do is come home to Britain.”
Meanwhile, the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Thursday for talks hosted by Vladimir Putin about the latest developments in northern Syria.
Russia, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is getting increasingly impatient about militants in Syria’s Idlib province.
Russia and Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition, had brokered a cease-fire for Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold that averted a major government offensive but that deal has been strained as al-Qaida-linked militants seized towns and villages in Idlib.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Russia is going to raise its concerns at the talks about the presence of “terrorists” there.