SUN 21 - 4 - 2019
Mar 6, 2019
The Daily Star
Daesh nears end as hundreds leave Baghouz
OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria: Hundreds of people left the last area held by Daesh (ISIS) in Syria Tuesday where they gathered in a massive reception area to be searched and screened by U.S.-backed fighters.
Some of those who gathered outside the village of Baghouz said they had been waiting since the previous night when hundreds left the Daesh-held pocket. The latest wave of evacuations brings the final defeat of the extremists’ so-called “caliphate” at the hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces closer.
Officers from the U.S.-led coalition were seen screening the men who had left the Daesh-held area to determine if they were militants or civilians. The exodus came three days after the U.S.-backed forces resumed their push on the militants holed up in Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates River, close to the Iraqi border.
In past weeks, thousands of civilians left the speck of territory in organized evacuations following an earlier halt in fighting.
The Kurdish-led forces said their fighters were surprised by the large number of civilians, including Daesh family members, cooped up in the tiny area squeezed smaller and smaller by intermittent offensives.
The U.S.-backed forces slowed their push on Baghouz last week to allow civilians to leave the enclave.
Asked about the situation inside Baghouz, a Russian woman who came out with her three children responded in broken Arabic: “Fear.” She said her husband had died earlier.
Another woman in her mid-20s, who identified herself as Reem from the central Syrian province of Hama, said she was waiting for her husband to come out of a Daesh-controlled jail.
He has been there for months after killing a Daesh member in retaliation “for his baby daughter being killed in an airstrike,” she said.
“I haven’t seen him since and don’t know where he is,” Reem said, adding that she asked repeatedly for his whereabouts before she eventually decided to leave.
The evacuees said the bombing had been intense over the past days.
One woman said she saw a man hit by a missile as she was escaping from one tent to another.
Another woman said many were waiting to leave and that the scene was chaotic at the safe passage area. Earlier Tuesday, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted that about 3,000 people came out of Baghouz Monday.
They left through a humanitarian corridor established by the Kurdish-led forces for those who wanted to leave or surrender.
Since Feb. 20, more than 10,000 people have left the Daesh pocket, often in dramatic scenes of black-robed women with children in the back of trucks passing through the corridor and heading into the desert.
They were then whisked off to a camp for displaced people to the north, while suspected Daesh militants were moved to detention facilities.
Bali said a large number among those who left Monday were militants who “surrendered to our forces.”
It is unclear how many Daesh militants and civilians remain inside, but the number is now likely in the hundreds.
Separately, the Syrian military mounted airstrikes against Daesh and clashed with the militants in the area of Sukhneh, between Palmyra and Deir al-Zor, the pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper reported.
The flare-up in that area Monday points to the foothold Daesh still has west of the Euphrates even as the SDF is poised to seize its last enclave east of the river.
The Syrian air force mounted “a number of airstrikes targeting Daesh movements in the eastern Badia, specifically on one of the dirt roads leading to the town of Sukhneh and southeast of the town,” Al-Watan said, citing a military source.
In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with the head of the main Syrian opposition negotiating body.
Russia has been one of the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s 8-year-old civil war. It has also hosted peace talks for Syria, rivaling the U.N.-sponsored negotiations.
Russia, along with other countries, has been pushing for the formation of a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution.
Lavrov, who met with Nasser al-Hariri, chief of the High Negotiations Committee, during his trip to Saudi Arabia said in comments carried by Russian news agencies Tuesday that Moscow appreciated Hariri’s intensions to seek compromise in the talks and expressed hope that the constitutional committee would be formed soon.
Hariri in turn promised Lavrov that his group would continue to coordinate with Russia on the negotiations.
The 150-member committee is intended to represent the government, the opposition and civil society and is seen by the U.N. as key to holding free elections and ending the civil war in Syria.
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