Truckloads of civilians leave Islamic State enclave in Syria

Men with covered faces sit in the back of a truck near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) - Trucks loaded with civilians left the last Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria on Friday, as U.S.-backed forces waited to inflict final defeat on the surrounded jihadists.

Reporters near the front line at Baghouz saw dozens of trucks driving out with civilians inside them, but it was not clear if more remained in the tiny pocket.

The village is all that remains for Islamic State in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria after it lost the major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.

The SDF has steadily driven the jihadists down the Euphrates after capturing their Syrian capital, Raqqa, in 2017, but does not want to mount a final attack until all civilians are out.

The U.S.-led coalition which supports the SDF has said Islamic State's "most hardened fighters" remain holed up in Baghouz, close to the Iraqi frontier.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF's media office, earlier told Reuters that more than 3,000 civilians were estimated to still be inside Baghouz and there would be an attempt to evacuate them on Friday.

"If we succeed in evacuating all the civilians, at any moment we will take the decision to storm Baghouz or force the terrorists to surrender," he said.

Though the fall of Baghouz marks a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State and the wider conflict in Syria, the militant group is still seen as a major security threat.

It has steadily turned to guerrilla warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River - a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

The United States will leave "a small peacekeeping group" of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a U.S. pullout, the White House said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal.

Trump in December ordered a withdrawal of the 2,000 troops, saying they had defeated Islamic State militants in Syria.

(Reporting by Rodi Said; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus McDowall and Robin Pomeroy)