Hundreds limp out of besieged Syria jihadist enclave

Baghouz (Syria) (AFP) –


Veiled women carrying babies and wounded men on crutches hobbled out of the last jihadist village in eastern Syria on Wednesday after US-backed forces pummelled the besieged enclave.

The Syrian Democratic Forces leading the assault expected more fighters to surrender with their families in tow before its forces could move deeper into the Islamic State group's last redoubt.

Bandaged and bedraggled, gaggles of suspected jihadists in long brown robes limped away from the hellscape of Baghouz, crossing fields of yellow flowers to reach an SDF screening centre.

The tiny village on the banks of the Euphrates River, where diehard IS fighters have made a bloody last stand, has regurgitated unexplained numbers of people.

At Al-Hol camp, a camp north of Baghouz where displaced civilians have been evacuated, the situation has become "completely overwhelming", said Misty Buswell of the International Rescue Committee.

"No one could have guessed that there could still be so many children and women in Baghouz," she said. "Particularly vulnerable are the many heavily pregnant women as well as mothers with newborns."

Kurdish officers in the SDF and aid groups have voiced surprise that the flow of evacuees never seemed to dry up after weeks of evacuations.

On Tuesday alone, "3,500 people were evacuated from Daesh-held territory," said SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Hundreds more filed out of Baghouz on Wednesday, AFP correspondents on the ground reported.

As the sun set on the outskirts of Baghouz, the SDF delivered a truck full of wounded women, some of whom had to be lifted out of the lorry on stretchers.

Nearby, a solemn procession of bearded men led by armed guards filed slowly towards US-led coalition troops for processing.

Tearful women clad in black gathered to watch them file past, demanding answers from SDF fighters about where they were being taken.

Around a tenth of the 57,000 people who have fled the last IS bastion since December were jihadists trying to slip back into civilian life, according to SDF officers and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A senior SDF officer said 400 jihadists were captured on Tuesday night as they attempted to slip out of Baghouz in an escape he said was organised by a network that had planned to smuggle them to remote hideouts.

The operation to smash the last remnant of the "caliphate" that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in 2014 resumed last Friday after a long humanitarian pause.

The assumption had been that almost no families remained holed up in Baghouz and that those who did were refusing to surrender and choosing to die there.

- 'People inside' -

The deluge of fire unleashed by SDF artillery and coalition air strikes at the weekend appears to have broken the determination of some families.

Syrians, Iraqis and jihadists who travelled to the "caliphate" from France, Finland and other countries turned themselves in to Kurdish forces.

"There's still lots of people inside," said Safia, a 24-year-old Belgian woman among those trucked out by the SDF on Tuesday, adding that her French husband was among them.

Western forces from the US-led coalition -- which also includes France, one of the main sources of foreign IS fighters -- searched for wanted individuals among the new arrivals.

On Tuesday, the wife of French jihadist Jean-Michel Clain confirmed her husband had been killed in Baghouz, days after his brother Fabien.

The brothers were featured in a video claiming responsibility for a 2015 shooting rampage in the streets of Paris that remains France's deadliest ever terrorist attack.

Clain's widow Dorothee Maquere fled the enclave with her five children and told AFP she did not want to return to France.

"I want to be left alone after everything I've been through... some place where I can live, where I won't be bothered, where I can live my life."

More than 50,000 evacuees have been squeezed into the Kurdish-run camp of Al-Hol, where the foreigners await a decision on their fate.

Their countries of origin have been reluctant to take them back, wary of security risks and the political backlash.

The SDF have warned however that they would not carry that burden much longer and that other avenues are being explored.

Iraq has already confirmed it received 14 French nationals suspected of fighting for IS in Syria.

- Saturated camps -

Many of those filing out of Baghouz are weak after living for weeks with scarce food and hiding from bombs in underground shelters.

The authorities in Al-Hol and other camps for evacuees are overwhelmed and entire families have had to sleep rough.

Dozens of children are unaccompanied and the toll of those who died shortly after arriving or en route from Baghouz has risen to 90 since December, according to the UN.

The jihadists are massively outnumbered in Baghouz.

The Kurdish-led SDF, who launched their broad offensive on remaining IS strongholds in the Euphrates Valley six months ago, say they expect a victory within days.

The capture of Baghouz would mark the end of IS territorial control in the region and deal a death blow to the "caliphate", which at its peak more than four years ago was the size of the United Kingdom and ruled millions of people.