BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to take Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria looked close to an end on Wednesday, with no sign of clashes as U.S.-backed fighters said they were combing the area for hidden jihadists.
Reuters reporters overlooking Baghouz from a hill on the bank of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border said the area was calm, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia searched for tunnels and landmines, an SDF official said.
The SDF on Tuesday captured an encampment where the jihadists had been mounting a last defense of the tiny enclave, pushing diehard fighters onto a sliver of land at the Euphrates riverside.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain, whose country has participated in the campaign, said in Paris he expected the announcement of the “final territorial defeat” to be made in the “next few days”.
There was no immediate update from the SDF on Wednesday on the fate of these remaining militants. A group of women and children were seen being evacuated from the Baghouz area.
Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz would end its territorial control over the third of Syria and Iraq it held in 2014 as it sought to carve out a huge caliphate in the region.
While it would represent a significant milestone in Syria’s eight-year-old war and in the battle against Islamic State, the jihadist group remains a threat.
Some of the group’s fighters remain holed up in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraqi cities to wage an insurgent campaign to destabilize the government.
For the SDF, it would cap a four-year, U.S.-led military campaign in which its fighters drove Islamic State from swathes of northeastern Syria, taking the city of Raqqa after a months-long battle in 2017.
The group was also forced into retreat by numerous other local and foreign forces roused by its public displays of bloodletting and the attacks it plotted abroad.
Its Baghouz enclave was the last part of the huge territory it seized in 2014, straddling swathes of Iraq and Syria, where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new caliphate.
His fate, along with other Islamic State leaders, is not known, though the United States has said it believes him to be in Iraq.
Women and children leaving Baghouz have spoken to Reuters and other international media of harsh conditions under siege in the encampment, surviving heavy aerial bombardment and with food supplies so scarce that some resorted to eating grass.
In the past 24 hours, IS supporters and activists have circulated photos on social media that purportedly show children and women, some alive and some apparently dead, among corpses of fighters after a coalition strike on the encampment.
Reuters was unable immediately to verify the authenticity of the pictures.
Former residents also told Reuters hundreds of civilians have been killed in months of heavy aerial bombing by the coalition that has razed many of the hamlets in the area along the Iraqi border.
The coalition says it takes great care to avoid killing civilians and investigates reports that it has done so.
Over the past two months, some 60,000 people, mostly women and children, have poured out of shrinking IS territory, said the SDF. Relatives and former residents told Reuters many of them were Iraqi Arab Sunni Muslim families who crossed into Syria fleeing revenge by Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias that had overrun their towns.
The SDF has said that among the civilians who fled were some Islamic State victims such as enslaved women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious community.
The SDF estimated at least 5,000 fighters surrendered. In recent days, as the enclave shrank, the SDF said hundreds more of them started to surrender, or were captured trying to escape.
Most of the women and children who were detained were moved to displacement camps in northeast Syria. The fighters were taken to security prisons, but the SDF has urged foreign countries to take back their citizens, causing a dilemma for some Western states who see them as a threat.