IS Fighters Refusing to Leave Last Syrian Stronghold

Near East

19 February 2019, 05:34

M.News

Islamic State fighters are refusing to surrender to U.S.-backed Syrian forces and are asking for a safe exit from their last stronghold in eastern Syria, local military officials told VOA Monday.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed Kurdish alliance, said that IS fighters have been surrounded in a small area in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour.

“In the past several days, more than once we have offered them to surrender. But they don’t want to leave like that,” an SDF commander, who requested anonymity, said.

He said IS fighters would choose to fight until the end if they don’t receive “an offer from us, which includes a safe exit for them.”

A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter talks on his phone inside a building used as a temporary base near the last land still held by Islamic State militants in Baghouz, Syria, Feb. 18, 2019.
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter talks on his phone inside a building used as a temporary base near the last land still held by Islamic State militants in Baghouz, Syria, Feb. 18, 2019.

IS fighters have reportedly asked to be evacuated to the nearby Iraqi desert. Their request has been rejected, SDF sources told VOA.

More than 300 IS fighters are believed to have remained in Baghuz, the last stronghold held by IS extremists in Syria. With the help of the U.S.-led coalition, SDF fighters have pushed out IS from all the territories it once held since its emergence in 2014.

The terror group now controls a few hundred square meters in Baghuz, where militants are hiding among hundreds of civilians, preventing them from leaving, Kurdish military sources said.

“We have opened safe corridors to transfer some civilians to liberated areas,” Lilwa Abdullah, an SDF spokeswoman, told VOA.

She said the goal is to evacuate the remaining civilians from Baghuz before the fighting intensifies further.

A Humvee drives in a village recently retaken from Islamic State militants by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Baghouz, Syria, Feb. 17, 2019.
A Humvee drives in a village recently retaken from Islamic State militants by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Baghouz, Syria, Feb. 17, 2019.

Negotiations

Other SDF officials said Monday they have been negotiating with IS to secure the release of hundreds of hostages and detainees kept in Baghuz.

Kino Gabriel, an SDF official, told local radio station Arta FM that his group has been trying to strike a deal with IS to make sure the remaining hostages, including SDF detainees and civilians, were freed. He did not say how many people are still held by IS.

Since the beginning of the campaign to recapture Baghuz a week ago, more than 5,000 civilians have been rescued from IS, SDF officials said.

Ekrem Salih, a Kurdish reporter embedded with the SDF in Baghuz, said that if it weren’t for civilians, Baghuz would have already been freed from IS.

“The problem is that (IS) militants have mixed with civilians,” he said.

Salih added that a large number of the remaining civilians are families of IS fighters.

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against IS targets in Baghuz have paused in the past several days, most likely to avoid civilian casualties.

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