OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria | More civilians leave last IS-held pocket in eastern Syria

OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — Small trucks carrying civilians left the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria in an escorted convoy on Friday, hours after coalition airstrikes meant to pressure the militants targeted the area on the banks of the Euphrates River.

At least 15 trucks were seen leaving the through a humanitarian corridor from the militants’ last patch of territory in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. Men, women and children were among those on the trucks, escorted by gun-mounted pick-up trucks belonging to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Some 300 IS militants, along with hundreds of civilians believed to be mostly their families, have been under siege for more than a week in the tent camp in Baghouz. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces surrounding the patch of land have been unable to carry out a final assault on it because of the presence of the civilians.

An SDF spokesman, Mustafa Bali, said there were coalition airstrikes and intermittent clashes earlier Friday with the militants, meant to pressure them into allowing the last civilians to leave.

“For this evacuation to be a success, there (needs to be) military action,” Bali added.

The presence of civilians in Baghouz — and possibly senior members of the militant group — have slowed the expected defeat of IS.

In the past few weeks, nearly 20,000 people had left Baghouz through the humanitarian corridor, leaving the IS holdout on foot, but the militants then closed the passage and no civilians left for a week until Wednesday, when a large group was evacuated.

Recapturing Baghouz would mark an end to the territorial rule of the militants’ self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across a third of both Syria and Iraq, and allow President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do, opening a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year civil war.

Few believe, however, that ending the group’s territorial rule will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq.

The Trump administration, which abruptly announced in December that it was pulling out of Syria, said Thursday that it will keep 200 U.S. troops in the country for now.

“A small peace keeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for period of time,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a one-sentence statement.

By Associated Press