IS defends last Syria redoubt, as family members flee

Near Baghouz (Syria) (AFP) - Jihadist fighters made a desperate last stand in eastern Syria on Wednesday, while their wives and children fled the final, blood-soaked implosion of the Islamic State group's "caliphate".

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Saturday launched a final push to expel IS fighters from the sole remaining morsel of the proto-state they declared in 2014 across parts of Syria and Iraq.

Thousands of people have flooded out of the so-called "Baghouz pocket" near the Iraqi border in recent days -- mostly women and children, but also suspected jihadists.

Several dozen people fled Baghouz on Wednesday afternoon, walking to an SDF-held position four kilometres (two miles) away from the village.

As they approached, the SDF rushed to filter out the men. They separated 15, all with long beards, and took them one by one behind a rock to search them.

Afterwards, they loaded them into a truck destined for a gathering point where coalition troops were present.

In an open field serving as the main civilian reception location, about 300 women and children, almost all of them Iraqi, sat in small groups.

After fleeing Baghouz on foot on Tuesday afternoon, most had spent the night out in the open.

"I tried to go get a blanket for my kids but there weren't enough," said Umm Ayham, a young Syrian woman from the northern province of Raqa.

"Some people had lit a fire, burning plastic they found on the ground and baby diapers, so I went by it to get warm."

- Retina scan -

Hundreds of people fled the IS holdout in the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said.

Once separated from suspected jihadists, civilians are ferried on trucks to Kurdish-held camps for the displaced hours north.

But after weeks of receiving little food inside the jihadists' shrinking pocket, many small children do not survive the trek through the cold desert.

The International Rescue Committee said Wednesday 51 people had died on the way to the Al-Hol camp or shortly after arriving, most in the past few weeks.

The majority were young children or newborn babies, and most died from hypothermia.

Inside the pocket on Wednesday, the Kurdish-led SDF fighters were advancing slowly.

"We have retaken positions lost in a counterattack launched two days ago by IS. We have progressed and taken new positions," Bali said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF fighters were making painstaking progress.

"There are mines throughout the sector," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based war monitor.

"The SDF are firing rockets," he said, adding that both sides were locked in heavy clashes on the edges of Baghouz village.

Since December, more than 38,000 people, mostly wives and children of IS fighters, have fled into SDF-held areas, the Observatory says.

That figure includes around 3,500 suspected jihadists, according to the monitor.

In SDF-held territory earlier Wednesday, two dozen members of the coalition forces searched men who had escaped, including one in a rickety wheelchair.

A coalition force member led one of the younger men to a subsequent point for a retina scan. Those who had been searched knelt on the ground.

- Foreign jihadists -

The SDF launched a military offensive to expel IS from the eastern banks of the Euphrates in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor in September.

Since then, more than 1,300 jihadists as well as 650 US-backed fighters have been killed, while more than 400 civilians have lost their lives, the Observatory says.

SDF spokesman Bali said at the weekend that up to 600 jihadists could remain inside the pocket, most of them foreigners.

US President Donald Trump on Monday said the coalition may declare victory over IS in Syria within days.

A victory in Baghouz would allow the United States to withdraw all its 2,000 troops from Syria, as announced by Trump in December.

The pullout announcement shocked Washington's allies, as well as US military commanders.

In a report last week, the US Department of Defence warned that without sustained counterterrorism pressure, IS could resurge within months.

Syria's Kurds hold hundreds of suspected foreign IS fighters and have long urged their home countries to take them back, but these nations have been reluctant.

A senior Pentagon official told reporters Washington was pressing its allies to repatriate their nationals.

"We are seeing hopeful progress," he said.

Syria's civil war has killed 360,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

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