Snipers, starvation and death: IS ‘caliphate’ ended in bloodbath

Kurdish people visit a cemetery in Hasaka governorate, Syria April 1, 2019. Picture taken April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By John Davison

AL-HOL CAMP, Syria (Reuters) – Even when U.S. coalition air strikes and artillery paused for people to evacuate during lulls in fighting, the killing did not stop in Islamic State’s final enclave.

Snipers in areas controlled by Syria’s government near the village of Baghouz picked off women and children fetching water from the river or climbing the small hill to seek medical help in Kurdish-controlled territory, survivors said.

People died from their wounds and children starved.

“There were lines of bodies, men, women and children. I didn’t count them,” said Katrin Aleksandr, a Ukrainian woman who left Baghouz in eastern Syria in the last days of the fighting.

She lay in a hospital bed with her head stitched up, two black eyes and shrapnel wounds to her limbs. Her husband, a militant, was killed in the air strike that wounded her.

“Everything was on fire, including tents people lived in,” she said.

Those who lived through the final days of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate said many people had stayed or were trapped in trenches, tunnels and tents in Baghouz.

Aleksandr and several other people interviewed by Reuters in camps and hospitals, including supporters and critics of Islamic State, gave separate but similar accounts.

They say bombardment by U.S.-backed forces and sniper fire from Syrian government areas killed scores, if not hundreds, as fighters and families scrabbled over food.

U.S.-backed forces declared last month the full territorial defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Asked about events in Baghouz, the U.S.-led coalition said it uses “stringent methods to … allow halts to strikes if any civilians would be put in danger,” and investigates all reports of civilian casualties.

The Syrian government and Shi’ite Muslim militias deny targeting civilians in fighting.

Islamic State deployed car bombs and suicide belts during weeks of fighting for Baghouz. The Sunni Islamist group left a trail of destruction, killed thousands of people in the name of its narrow interpretation of Islam and helped cause many more deaths by trapping civilians in battles to drive it out.

But its adversaries have often used intense bombardment to end those battles in which civilians were killed, fuelling a humanitarian crisis and resentment among those who once lived in the areas it controlled.

In Mosul, the group’s Iraqi stronghold from 2014 to 2017, aerial and ground bombardment destroyed its center and killed thousands of civilians, according to rights groups.

Raqqa in northern Syria, where IS planned attacks in European capitals, was largely destroyed in 2017 before some militants were allowed to evacuate. Many of them are thought to have ended up in Baghouz.

IS supporters, those who tolerated the group and even some critics say its defeat has come at too high a cost in lives and destruction, creating anger the militants are likely to try to exploit as they wage a growing insurgency.

“There’s no shelter in Baghouz, just trenches and tents. Shells landed every 20 minutes. I left after an explosion killed my husband and two of my children,” said Salma Ibrahim, a 20-year-old Moroccan IS supporter at al-Hol camp where many displaced by violence now live.

“Of people who went to the river to get water, maybe half returned,” she said.



Baghouz, now under the control of the Kurdish-led and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is separated by the Euphrates river from territory controlled by the Syrian army and its allies including Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim militias, who have been accused of revenge attacks against Sunnis.

With IS no longer holding any of eastern Syria, the Euphrates effectively demarcates rival areas of Kurdish control to its east and Syrian government control to the west.

Reporters have mostly been prevented from reaching Baghouz since the battle entered its final phase and ended in late March.

Some civilians said IS forced them to stay almost until the end.

“Fighters guarded women and children and wouldn’t let us go,” said Amal Susi, a 20-year-old Lebanese woman at al-Hol.

She said militants and families fought over bags of flour and scraps of meat.

“They would point their guns at each other and wrestle over flour. People starved,” she said. “When we finally left, we saw bodies of children missing limbs and heads.”

The U.S.-led coalition said it carried out 193 air and artillery strikes in Syria between March 10 and IS’s declared defeat on March 23, some resulting in secondary explosions. It said the SDF were “committed to enabling multiple opportunities to allow for civilians to escape harm.”

Militants kept civilians next to ammunition depots and hid in a network of tunnels, several people interviewed said.

An SDF fighter who participated in the battle said dozens of comrades were killed by mines planted by IS.

“The smell of burned bodies and explosives mixed when we entered Baghouz,” said the fighter, Chegovara Zerik. “Air strikes helped destroy tunnels. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to advance.”

“Most of the bodies were men and women fighters. Strikes only hit where gunfire was coming from. It was not a normal battle – women and boys also fought,” the fighter said.

Unverified videos posted on social media purported to show IS women fighting. Those interviewed said this might have happened but they did not witness it.

Many women described cowering in trenches.

“The reason most people did not leave is because everyone was scared,” said one British woman at al-Hol, who struggled to speak because of a mouth injury.

That included fear of revenge attacks, she said.

“One German girl, she got caught, then they (the SDF) were, like, “Why did you come?” and shot her in the head.”

The 22-year-old Londoner declined to give her name. Reuters could not verify her account.

The SDF said it was “impossible” any such incidents occurred among its ranks.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S.-backed Syrian force starts final battle in Islamic State enclave

A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits on a vehicle near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis and Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian fighters launched an operation on Friday to clear the last remaining pocket of Islamic State fighters from the besieged eastern Syrian village of Baghouz after weeks of delays caused by the evacuation of thousands of civilians.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) moved on the enclave, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) after the last batch of civilians were removed, said Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office.

“Nothing remains in Baghouz except for terrorists. The battle … will not end until the elimination of Daesh and the liberation of the village,” he told Reuters, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Bali said the initial fighting involved heavy weapons. Asked how long the battle would last, he said: “We expect a fierce and heavy battle.”

The Islamic State enclave at Baghouz, a tiny pocket on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists, who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, the group continues to be seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

The SDF commander-in-chief said on Thursday that his force would declare victory over the jihadists in one week.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry/Stephen Kalin in Beirut; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Mass grave found in last Islamic State bastion: SDF

FILE PHOTO: Buses that carry civilians are seen parked near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Ellen Francis

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – A mass grave containing the bodies of dozens of people killed by Islamic State, including many women, has been found in territory recently seized by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an SDF official said on Thursday.

The SDF is poised to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State’s territorial rule at the besieged village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. But the operation has been held up as the SDF seeks to evacuate thousands of civilians.

“We will announce the complete victory over Daesh (Islamic State) in a week,” SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Kobani said in a video released by the SDF on Thursday, speaking during a meeting with a group of SDF fighters freed from IS captivity.

It was not immediately clear when the video was filmed.

The SDF announced on Thursday it had freed 24 of its fighters from the jihadist group.

The Islamic State (IS) enclave at Baghouz, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against IS, the group is still seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and still holding some territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

The mass grave was found around one week ago in an area of Baghouz already seized from IS and is still being excavated, SDF commander Adnan Afrin told Reuters. It was not clear when the people had been killed.

The SDF was seeking to confirm whether the bodies, most of them decapitated, were those of Yazidi sect members enslaved by IS, he said, adding: “They were slaughtered.”

Thousands of members of the minority Yazidi sect from Iraq were forced into sexual slavery by IS when they surged across the border in 2014 and seized swathes of territory.

More than 3,000 other Yazidis were killed in an onslaught the United Nations later described as genocidal, which prompted the first U.S. air strikes against IS. Thousands more fled on foot and many remain displaced more than four years later.


Some 40,000 people have crossed from the jihadists’ diminishing territory in the last three months as the U.S.-backed SDF sought to finish off the group. The numbers of people, who are still pouring out of Baghouz, have surpassed initial estimates.

Afrin said many of the people coming out of Baghouz had been underground in caves and tunnels.

The SDF has said it wants to evacuate civilians inside Baghouz before storming it or forcing the surrender of the remaining jihadists, who the SDF has said are mostly foreigners.

The U.S.-led coalition said Baghouz had been “more crowded with both civilians and fighters than expected”.

“The overflow during the lull in battle has been difficult for the SDF and they have responded to everything well …,” said Colonel Sean Ryan, the coalition spokesman.

Afrin said the 24 fighters who were announced freed on Thursday were mostly captured by IS during the Deir al-Zor campaign and were rescued by its special forces based on intelligence.

The SDF has said several hundred jihadists are believed to be holed up in Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets surrounded by farmland on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

Afrin said there had been no negotiations with IS but “in the future it is possible they will request negotiations to surrender”. He said IS was still holding hostages inside Baghouz, both civilians and SDF fighters.

(Additional reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor, Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Stephen Kalin/Tom Perry; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Gareth Jones)

Two hundred families trapped by Islamic State in Syria, U.N. says

FILE PHOTO: Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drink tea in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Some 200 families are trapped in a shrinking area of Syria controlled by Islamic State, whose forces are stopping many from fleeing, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday, calling for the families’ safe passage.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are on the brink of defeating IS in its last pocket in eastern Syria, the village of Baghouz, where it estimates a few hundred Islamic State fighters and about 2,000 civilians are under siege.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Many of the families “… continue to be subjected to intensified air and ground-based strikes by the U.S.-led Coalition forces and their SDF allies on the ground,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“We understand that ISIL appears to be preventing some of them if not all of them from leaving. So that’s potentially a war crime on the part of ISIL,” her spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

The SDF attacking Islamic State have an obligation under international law to take all precautions to protect civilians who are mixed in with the foreign fighters, he said.

In Syria’s northwest, Syrian government forces and their allies have intensified a bombing campaign in Idlib and surrounding areas in recent weeks, coupled with attacks by armed groups that have killed civilians, Bachelet said.

Twin explosions in the bustling center of rebel-held Idlib city on Monday killed at least 15 people and injured scores, medics and witnesses said.. Bachelet put the death toll from that incident at 16 with more than 70 injured.

Bachelet also voiced concern for some 20,000 people who fled the ISIL-controlled areas in eastern Deir al-Zor governorate in recent weeks. They are being held in makeshift camps run by the Kurdish armed groups, including SDF, who are reported to be preventing IDPs from leaving the camps, she said.

“Particular care needs to be taken with the civilians and if possible they should be treated humanely, and allowed to leave the camps. They shouldn’t be held in detention unless they are suspected of committing a particular crime,” Colville said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)