Hundreds surrender in last Islamic State enclave as SDF advance

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State militants along with women and children surrendered in the hundreds to U.S.-backed forces in eastern Syria on Thursday as the jihadists lost ground in their last shred of territory.

Many of the men were limping as they crossed out of the Baghouz enclave along a dirt path over a rocky hill, with weeping children and fully veiled women, dragging suitcases and backpacks behind them.

Some men trudged along on crutches with bandages wrapped around their legs. Women hoisted children onto their shoulders to get them up the hill, leaving strollers and blankets behind in the dust.

Adnan Afrin, a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said hundreds of people were emerging, adding to the many thousands who have streamed out of Baghouz in recent weeks.

“They are coming out this way in case there are snipers or someone wants to attack.”

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said some 1,300 jihadists and their families came out on Thursday. SDF fighters said they included foreigners.

The militants surrendered during a pause in the U.S.-backed assault to seize the final patch of populated Islamic State territory – a self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

In the morning, explosions rang out at the front line as artillery fire pounded Baghouz and warplanes buzzed overhead.

The SDF, which the Kurdish YPG militia spearheads, said the jihadists had deployed more than 20 suicide bombers in counter-attacks in the last two days.

It said at least 112 militants had been killed since it resumed the offensive at the weekend.

No Islamic State commanders are believed to be in Baghouz village, a U.S. defense official has said. U.S. government experts strongly believe its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The jihadists are still assessed to be a potent security threat with a foothold in remote areas and widely expected to escalate a wave of guerrilla attacks.

TWISTED METAL, FALLEN PALM TREES

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared its ultra-radical Sunni Islamist “caliphate” and established a rule known for mass killings, sexual enslavement and meting out punishments such as crucifixion.

The militants suffered their major military defeats in 2017, when they lost the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. They were then forced down the Euphrates River to their last bastion at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets on the eastern bank.

In part of the Islamic State encampment which the SDF seized a few days ago, collapsed tents and fallen palm trees lay among a scattering of rubble and twisted metal.

Dirty, ripped blankets, carpets, mattresses and abandoned motorcycles littered the ground.

The SDF assault had been postponed repeatedly over the last few weeks to evacuate people from the enclave, many of them wives and children of fighters.

Overall, tens of thousands have fled Islamic State’s shrinking territory in recent months. The SDF has mostly transferred to a camp at al-Hol in the northeast.

The United Nations says the camp now holds around 67,000 people, 90 percent of them women and children – well beyond its capacity. Camp workers say they do not have enough tents, food or medicine. They have warned of diseases spreading.

Aid agencies say scores of people, mostly children, have died en route to the camp or shortly after arriving.

(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; Writing by Lisa Barrington, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Islamic State counter-attacks out of final Syria enclave fall short -U.S.-backed SDF

Islamic state fighters and their families walk as they surrendered in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State launched two counter attacks on U.S.-backed fighters besieging their final shred of territory in eastern Syria on Wednesday but were beaten back without any progress, the Syrian Democratic Forces said.

The jihadists, waging a last-ditch battle in Baghouz, a collection of hamlets and farmland near the Iraqi border, dispatched suicide bombers against SDF fighters, who thwarted the attacks, the U.S.-backed force said.

Islamic State launched the second counter-attack in the afternoon, “(taking) advantage of smoke and dust over Baghouz”, the SDF media office said. “Fighting is still continuing. (Islamic State) made no progress so far and were stopped.”

There were no SDF casualties. “They attempted to carry out suicide attacks but failed,” the SDF said.

Black smoke mushroomed high over Baghouz as the sounds of gunfire, explosions and planes could be heard in a battle that the SDF has said is as good as over.

In parts of Baghouz already under SDF control, dirt roads were littered with the scorched remains of cars, trucks and motorcycles. Many houses had been completely flattened and roads had been cratered by missile strikes.

Islamic State’s black flag could still be seen painted on walls, while others had been emblazoned with freshly daubed SDF slogans and the words “Down with Daesh”, an Arabic acronym for the jihadists.

Islamic State (IS) held roughly one third of Syria and Iraq at the zenith of its power in 2014, when its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all the world’s Muslims.

Subsequently, IS was steadily beaten back by a range of enemies including the U.S.-led international coalition, suffering its major defeats in 2017 when it lost the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa.

No Islamic State leaders are believed to be in Baghouz, according to a U.S. defense official. U.S. government experts strongly believe Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The group is still assessed to remain a potent security threat operating in remote territory in both Syria and Iraq.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said its forces had bombarded Baghouz heavily overnight before engaging in direct clashes with IS fighters in the pre-dawn hours.

Live footage broadcast by Kurdish Ronahi TV overnight showed a series of large blasts lighting up the night sky over Baghouz.

SUICIDE ASSAULTS

“There were suicide vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces. Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions,” Bali said.

The SDF has laid siege to Baghouz for weeks but had repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters, to leave. It resumed the attack on Sunday.

Around 3,000 IS fighters and their families surrendered to SDF forces in 24 hours, Bali said overnight. Three women and four children belonging to the Yazidi sect, a minority group who were kidnapped and enslaved by IS in 2014, were also freed, he said.

Islamic State put out a new propaganda video overnight Monday filmed in recent weeks inside Baghouz, maintaining its claim to leadership of all Muslims and calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell,” one of the men interviewed in the video said.

Though Islamic State is on the verge of losing its last piece of territory, Syria remains carved up among other parties to its multi-sided conflict: President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Kurdish-led SDF, and anti-government rebels.

The war has escalated in recent weeks between the Assad government and insurgents in the northwestern region of Idlib, where Islamist militant group Tahrir al-Sham holds sway.

Overnight, government forces rained incendiary bombs on the area, where a full-scale offensive was averted in September by an agreement brokered by Assad’s Russian allies and Turkey, which backs his opponents and has forces on the ground.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor, Ellen Francis in Baghouz and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Lisa Barrington/Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

‘Tomorrow we’ll be in paradise’: Islamic State followers speak from besieged enclave

By Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Even as it faced imminent defeat in its last populated territory in eastern Syria, Islamic State made a new propaganda film calling on the few remaining residents of its cold, besieged encampment to maintain their prayers and seek refuge in God.

“Servants of God, keep reciting your prayers and ask for forgiveness,” the loudspeaker of a beaten up van cries as it tours the ramshackle camp in the video. “Repent and ask God for forgiveness, oh servants of God, for perhaps the almighty will find a way out for us.”

The video’s tone is a far cry from the jihadist group’s earlier productions, which boasted of victories in taking over around a third of Syria and Iraq at its height in 2014 and summoned followers around the world to join a growing society.

While acknowledging its military setbacks in the face of a global campaign against it, Islamic State uses the new film to urge followers to maintain their faith in IS even in adversity.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said on Tuesday the assault to capture the besieged enclave of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border, was as good as over.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell,” said an Islamic State member whom the video identified as Abu Abd al-Azeem, whose speech is peppered with Koranic recitations.

Though the physical “caliphate” it declared in 2014 is now in ruins, the video showed Islamic State has not renounced its claim to be the contemporary heirs to Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, sovereign over all Muslim lands and people.

“The infidels laughed at, humiliated us in this world, but war has its ups and downs and the battle is not over,” al-Azeem said, adding that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the only Muslim leader on earth today.

Azeem, wrapped in a thick winter cloak, sits on the ground around a steaming cooking pot. Next to him is a bored-looking boy of around 10 years old, peering out from a thick coat hood.

SIEGE

The SDF has been laying siege to Baghouz for weeks but repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow the evacuation of thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State insurgents. The attack resumed on Sunday, backed by coalition air strikes.

The video, uploaded to IS online channels overnight, shows a community living on farmland in rough dwellings made of blankets, tents, trucks and trailers.

Men eat soup-like food from pots cooking on outdoor fires, sitting on upturned buckets or on the floor. As thousands of people flooded out of Baghouz in recent weeks, many told of severe shortages, with people reduced to eating grass at times.

Azeem implores watchers not to focus on worldly conditions, suggesting those still in Baghouz were martyrs as he referenced part of the Koran that describes how a group of people were burned in a ditch because of their strong belief in God.

After its sudden advance across swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, Islamic State’s wholesale slaughter or sexual enslavement of minorities and its grotesque public killings roused global anger.

Al-Azeem says all IS wanted to do was apply God’s law.

“Why are we bombed by planes, why do all the nations of the unbelieving world come together to fight us? … What is our guilt? What is our crime? We (just) wanted to apply the sharia of God,” he said.

Titled “The Meaning of Constancy, from Baghouz”, the video is dated with the Islamic month of Rajab, which began on March 9, but it is unclear exactly when it was filmed.

Over the course of the video, dozens of men with faces wrapped in scarves, young boys and the occasional woman dressed in black robes are seen milling around the encampment.

A bustling main street in the enclave is lined with small trucks and tent structures. People make their way along the street by motor bike or on foot.

IS still operates in remote territory elsewhere in Syria and Iraq and it is widely assessed that it will continue to represent a potent security threat after the fall of Baghouz.

“Do not be afraid, brothers, be cheerful and have faith,” said a man the video called Abu Addallah. A black balaclava obscured all but his eyes, and he spoke with a North African accent.

(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Freed Yazidi woman in Syria endured years of Islamic State slavery

Yazidi woman Salwa Sayed al-Omar, who escaped from the Islamic State, talks during an interview with Reuters near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria March 7, 2019. REUTERS/STRINGER

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Salwa Sayed al-Omar spent years as a Yazidi prisoner of Islamic State but she escaped its clutches this week, fleeing its last populated enclave in east Syria along with two Iraqi boys pretending to be her brothers.

Islamic State overran the Yazidi faith’s heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014, forcing young women into servitude as “wives” for its fighters and massacring men and older women.

The Yazidis are a religious sect whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Islamic State considers them devil worshippers and its attacks on the group were condemned as a “genocide” by the United Nations.

“They took women, abused them and killed them,” said Omar, describing how jihadists bought and sold their Yazidi captives or passed them around as sexual slaves.

“A woman was shifted from one man to another unless it was to one who had a bit of mercy… if she was in good condition, she would carry on. If not, she would get married to avoid being abused,” she said.

Omar was eventually married to a Tajik jihadist.

As the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) besieged the enclave at Baghouz, some surviving Yazidi women and children emerged among many thousands of others fleeing deprivation and bombardment, including the group’s own unrepentant supporters.

The SDF is waiting to evacuate all civilians from the Baghouz enclave before forcing the remaining jihadists there to surrender or storming the tiny area by force.

Omar escaped along with two Iraqi children, Mustafa and Dia, who had been her neighbors for two years as their respective households moved through Syria together during Islamic State’s long retreat to Baghouz.

EATING GRASS

As Islamic State’s many enemies advanced against it, the group would move its captives from place to place. “They were hiding us in different places so we couldn’t be seen or helped,” Omar said.

Their Islamic State captors were “rigorous” in checking who left, said the teenage boys, Mustafa and Dia, who said they had stayed longer in the enclave to help Omar leave.

After a month of siege in the tiny pocket at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets and farmland on the banks of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border, they were reduced to eating grass and hiding in holes when there was fighting, they said.

They all managed to get away from her “husband” by paying him money. Many Islamic State fighters remained in Baghouz as they left on Thursday, dug into tunnels under the area, the boys said.

Speaking in the desert outside Baghouz, where people who had left the enclave were searched, questioned and sorted between civilians and fighters, Omar spoke of how she had been captured.

“They took me from Iraq. They captured us on the road and said ‘we won’t do anything bad to you, but you must convert to Islam’. We were afraid to be killed so we converted,” she said.

It did not save them. After months of capture, the women were split from the men, whom she never saw again. Captured boys aged 7-15 were taken to be brainwashed and trained as Islamic State fighters, she said.

She was taken to Raqqa, the group’s Syrian “capital”, which fell to the SDF during Islamic State’s year of big defeats in 2017, and then down the Euphrates to Baghouz.

“Today I reached the democratic forces and they said ‘we will let you go out of the Islamic State’… and thank God, they helped me and let me out,” she said.

(Reporting By Reuters TV; additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo; writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones)

‘I only saw America killing”: an IS widow’s view of Syria’s war

Um Walaa, originally from Morocco with French nationality, and widow of an Islamic state fighter, is seen near Baghouz, Syria in this still image taken from a video shot on March 5, 2019. ReutersTV via REUTERS

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Emerging from Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria, a widow of one of the group’s fighters made no effort to hide her enmity toward the United States as she handed herself over to U.S.-backed Syrian forces besieging the area.

“This is not war. I did not see fighters, people taking up arms and waging jihad against America. No, I only saw America killing – a lot,” French national Um Walaa’s told Reuters TV after being evacuated from Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

“…They used to say we (Islamic State) made the world scared, honestly, I did not see this. I did not see that we terrorized the world.”

Her words offer a snapshot of the feelings harbored by the followers and fighters of the hardline group who have poured out of the enclave by the thousand over the past month.

After subjecting much of Syria and Iraq to a regime whose distinguishing features included mass killing, sexual enslavement and crucifixion, Islamic State is on the brink of losing its last sliver of populated territory.

Founded in 2014, the group’s self-styled caliphate drew followers from across the world and many, like Um Walaa, remain radicalized, their pride in having become adherents undimmed.

Dressed in black from head to toe and her face covered with a full veil, she said she was a French national of Moroccan origin who was born and raised in Belgium. She said her husband had died fighting for the group.

Um Walaa, who gave birth to her daughter in Syria, said she traveled to Islamic State because she wanted to help. “I wanted to see what there was in Syria. And what I saw was terrorism. America kills a lot of people.”

‘RIGOROUS STANDARDS’

Islamic State fell back to Baghouz as it gradually lost territory in Syria and Iraq to an array of enemies including Iraqi forces, the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian army, Turkey-backed rebels and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Its biggest defeats came in 2017 when it was driven from the Iraqi city of Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa.

SDF gains in Syria have been backed by ferocious U.S. airpower. Amnesty International has said there is evidence that attacks by the U.S.-led coalition in Raqqa broke international law by endangering civilians.

The coalition says it has applied “rigorous standards” when identifying Islamic State targets and has taken extraordinary efforts to protect non-combatants.

The defeat of Islamic State at Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against the group, but it is still widely believed to represent a security threat, holding pockets of territory elsewhere and able to launch guerrilla attacks.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Syria; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Tom Perry and John Stonestreet)

150 Islamic State fighters surrender in Syria battle: monitor

FILE PHOTO: A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds a walkie-talkie in Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Scores of Islamic State fighters surrendered to U.S.-backed forces on Monday, a war monitor said, after a ferocious assault to overrun their last shred of territory in eastern Syria.

Islamic State faces defeat in Baghouz, the only remaining patch of land it still holds in the area straddling Iraq and Syria where it declared a caliphate in 2014, although it still has control in a few remote areas.

Early on Monday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had slowed their assault on Islamic State because more civilians were trapped in the area, though it vowed to capture it soon.

A convoy of trucks was visible heading into Baghouz in the morning, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 150 jihadists left the enclave, along with about 250 other people.

There was no immediate confirmation of the surrenders from the SDF or any indication as to how many jihadists remained holed up inside.

Islamic State’s fighters have gradually fallen back on Baghouz at the Iraqi border as they retreated down the Euphrates in the face of sustained assault in both countries after its grotesque displays of cruelty roused global fury.

Despite the setbacks, the group remains a deadly threat, developing alternatives to its caliphate ranging from rural insurgency to urban bombings by affiliates in the region and beyond, many governments say.

The Syrian Democratic Forces this weekend resumed its assault on the group’s pocket in the village of Baghouz, the culmination of a campaign that included the capture of Raqqa in 2017, when IS also faced other big defeats in Iraq and Syria.

The militia had already paused its attack for weeks to allow thousands of people to flee the area, including Islamic State supporters, fighters, children, local people and some of the group’s captives.

It said on Friday that only jihadists remained, but now says some more civilians are left.

“We’re slowing down the offensive in Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

However, “the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon,” he added.

Dozens of trucks similar to those that had evacuated people from the enclave in recent weeks were visible heading back there on Monday and the drivers said they were going to pick people up at Baghouz.

Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said in an email that he could not verify who Islamic State was holding but hoped they would be released unharmed.

On Sunday, the SDF faced landmines, car bombs, tunnel ambushes and suicide attacks as they attempted to overrun the enclave – tactics the jihadist group has honed through its hard-fought retreat down the Euphrates.

Reuters photographs from Baghouz on Sunday showed dark plumes of smoke rising above houses and palm trees, and SDF fighters shooting into the Islamic State enclave.

While the capture of Baghouz would mark a milestone in the fight against Islamic State, the group is expected to remain a security threat as an insurgent force with sleeper cells and some pockets of remote territory.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Robert Birsel, William Maclean and Hugh Lawson)

Syria fighters say IS still holds civilians, slowing attack

FILE PHOTO: Black plumes of smoke rise in Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters have slowed an offensive to take Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria because a small number of civilians remain there, though fierce fighting continues, they said on Monday.

Islamic State faces defeat in the last shred of its main territory in Syria and Iraq where it announced a “caliphate” in 2014, suffering years of steady retreats after arousing global fury through grotesque displays of cruelty.

Despite the setbacks, the group remains a deadly threat, developing alternatives to its caliphate ranging from rural insurgency to urban bombings by affiliates in the region and beyond, many governments say.

The Syrian Democratic Forces this weekend resumed its assault on the group’s pocket in the village of Baghouz, the culmination of a campaign that included the capture of Raqqa in 2017, when IS also faced other big defeats in Iraq and Syria.

The militia had already paused its attack for weeks to allow thousands of people to flee the area, including Islamic State supporters, fighters, children, local people and some of the group’s captives.

It said on Friday that only jihadists remained, but now says some more civilians are left.

“We’re slowing down the offensive in Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

However, “the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon,” he added.

Dozens of trucks similar to those that had evacuated people from the enclave in recent weeks were visible heading back there on Monday and the drivers said they were going to pick people up at Baghouz.

Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said in an email that he could not verify who Islamic State was holding but hoped they would be released unharmed.

On Sunday, the SDF faced landmines, car bombs, tunnel ambushes and suicide attacks as they attempted to overrun the enclave – tactics the jihadist group has honed through its hard-fought retreat down the Euphrates.

Reuters photographs from Baghouz on Sunday showed dark plumes of smoke rising above houses and palm trees, and SDF fighters shooting into the Islamic State enclave.

While the capture of Baghouz would mark a milestone in the fight against Islamic State, the group is expected to remain a security threat as an insurgent force with sleeper cells and some pockets of remote territory.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Robert Birsel, William Maclean)

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.

CAVES AND TUNNELS

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)

‘This isn’t over’: Islamic State loyalties linger despite defeat

Women sit with their children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having joined Islamic State in Syria four years ago, the Algerian woman only abandoned the jihadists’ last scrap of besieged territory when her daughter was shot in the leg.

“I don’t regret it, even now … If my daughter was not injured, I would have stayed,” said the woman, speaking behind a full face veil as her 19-year-old daughter lay on a mattress nearby unable to walk.

At a checkpoint operated by U.S.-backed forces some 30 km (20 miles) from Islamic State’s last enclave at Baghouz, a village on the Euphrates, she described her faith in a movement that once held and terrorized large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

“Even if I’m here because I have no choice, I still believe, and I know this isn’t over,” added the woman, who finally joined the exodus from Baghouz on Monday evening.

The pro-Islamic State loyalties among evacuees showed the potential risk it still poses despite territorial defeat.

The militants once redrew the map of the region with a cross-border “caliphate” amounting to roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. But this has shrunk to Baghouz – a collection of hamlets and farmland – since they lost the bulk of their territory in 2017.

The group has been adapting for some time and has mounted a spate of guerrilla-style attacks in Syria of late.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria, says it wants to be certain all civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz before it launches a final assault to capture the area.

Numbers of evacuees have surpassed initial SDF estimates, and there was no sign of the evacuation ending on Tuesday when dozens of trucks ferried more out along dirt track roads.

People coming from Baghouz in recent days have shown more open loyalty to Islamic State than those who left earlier on, according to a volunteer medic at the checkpoint where they are subjected to preliminary security screening.

“Now they are more hardcore,” the medic said.

GUNSHOTS AND MORTARS

All the women at the checkpoint on Tuesday were dressed head-to-toe in black including the full face veil, or niqab.

A handful of tents on the desert ground were not enough to accommodate all gathered there. Warplanes with the U.S.-led coalition could be seen overhead.

Some children, their faces covered in dirt, cried.

The Algerian woman said there had there had been more gun-battles and mortar shelling than air strikes of late.

Her husband and two other children had been killed by shelling earlier in the war.

She had no desire to return to Algeria, where the government fought a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s.

“I can’t return to people who do not like me and who I don’t like,” said the woman, who lived in France for a time.

Asked why she went to Syria, she said: “This is what I believe in … the laws of God.”

Islamic State used its ultra-radical interpretation of Sunni Islam to justify atrocities including enslavement, mass killings, and draconian punishments including crucifixion.

The evacuees from Baghouz were being taken to a camp for internally displaced people at al-Hol, a town near the Iraqi border. The SDF wants foreign governments to help repatriate Islamic State activists, saying the burden and risk of holding them is growing.

Adnan Afrin, an SDF official, said the civilian convoys from Baghouz have included a growing number of surrendering militants. They are searched for bombs and mines before being allowed to go any further, he said.

The SDF estimates about 30,000 people have left Baghouz. It aims to eliminate or force the surrender of remaining fighters, who, according to the SDF, have dug defensive tunnels.

Many fighters remain, according to Afrin.

“We know from the civilians who came out that there are a big number, mostly European and Asian jihadists.”

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)