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SDF expects latest civilian evacuations from IS stronghold to be the last

Around 7,000 people fled the IS enclave last week [AFP]

Date of publication: 25 February, 2019

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The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Monday civilian evacuations from the last IS-held territory were likely to be the last, as the final battle for Baghouz approaches.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is preparing for another civilian exodus from the Islamic State group's last territory in Syria as conditions worsen in overcrowded camps filled with civilians from the jihadis' last village.

The SDF have slowed their offensive on Baghouz, a village in eastern Syria where the country's last remaining IS fighters are holed up, in order to evacuate civilians trapped there before making their final move to eliminate the group.

An SDF spokesman said the US-backed forces expected to evacuate a final, large group of civilians on Monday.

"According to what we heard from those who have left, there are nearly 5,000 people still inside," Mustefa Bali, told AFP at the al-Omar airbase, the main staging ground for the SDF's offensive.

The Kurdish-led forces evacuated almost 5,000 men, women and children from Baghouz on Wednesday and Friday last week, but none over the weekend.

More than 30 trucks crammed with people were spotted approaching an outpost for the SDF outside of Baghouz on Monday afternoon, AFP reported.

The remaining IS fighters and civilians, mostly relatives of jihadists, are trapped in less than half a square kilometre in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

"In the next few days, our forces will announce the defeat of the Islamic State group," Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar said.

"But this does not mean that we have eliminated terrorism, which must be eradicated at the roots."

IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries, and retains a presence in the vast Badia Desert of southern Syria.

Around 46,000 people, including thousands of IS members, have streamed out of the last IS villages since early December, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The SDF screens those exiting at an outpost outside the village in an attempt to weed out potential IS fighters.

Women, children, and men not suspected of belonging to the extremist group are sent north to the al-Hol camp, while suspected fighters are sent to SDF-run detention centres.

1,400 people, mainly IS relatives, were secretly transported from orchards on the outskirts of Baghouz to neighbouring Iraq over the past 24 hours, said the Observatory on Monday.

"In principle, we do not hand over any person passing through our territories to Iraqi authorities or any other party," Omar said.

Such transfers could only happen if they were transported from Baghouz "by another party", he explained, without specifying.

The mass outpouring of men, women and children from the small strip of land has overwhelmed Kurdish-run displacement camps, especially Hol camp.

"The international community is not currently taking responsibility towards the large number of people leaving the last IS pocket, especially children," Omar said.

Countries such as France, Germany and the UK have come under fire from human rights organisations in recent weeks for their failure to repatriate citizens associated with IS.

The Kurdish foreign affairs official added that international aid organisations were only meeting around five percent of the camp's needs.

Arrivals of around 7,000 people over the past week have bought al-Hol's population to over 45,000, the International Rescue Committee said.

At least 78 people, mostly children, have died on the way to the camp or shortly after arriving in recent weeks, the IRC said.

"This sudden influx presents huge challenges to the response - additional tents, non-food items, water and sanitation and health supplies are urgently needed," the UN's humanitarian coordination office OCHA tweeted Friday.



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