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In Syria, Daesh in last stand to defend dying 'caliphate'

Extremists block roads out of Baghouz, preventing hundreds of civilians from fleeing

By AFP - Feb 17,2019 - Last updated at Feb 17,2019

Fighters of the US-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces take a rest during an operation to expel Daesh militants from their last bastion in Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on Saturday (AFP photo)

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria — Diehard extremists have blocked roads out of the last scrap of their Daesh group "caliphate" in Syria, US-backed forces fighting them said Sunday, preventing hundreds of civilians from fleeing.

Ahead of a victory declaration expected within days and a subsequent US military pullout, US President Donald Trump called on his European allies to take back hundreds of alleged extremists captured in Syria.

The militants declared a "caliphate" across large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, implementing their brutal interpretation of Islam on millions.

But several offensives have expelled them from all of it, except a tiny patch of less than half a kilometre square on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border.

Thousands of people have streamed out of the so-called "Baghouz pocket" in recent weeks, but hundreds of civilians — including Daesh family members — are believed to still be inside.

At a collection point for new arrivals outside Baghouz on Sunday, dozens of tents and a few trucks sat empty. 

Earlier in the week, the area had been thronging with people — women and children, but also suspected militants led to one side.

 

"It's been two days since anyone came out," an SDF fighter told AFP.

SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said Daesh had blocked roads out of its holdout, preventing those remaining from escaping to safety.

"Daesh has sealed off all the streets" but up to 2,000 civilians could still be inside, he said, using the Arabic acronym for Daesh.

The extremists are confined to "a few hundred metres square in... Baghouz with a number of civilians they hold hostage and refuse to release", he said on Twitter Saturday.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition, which has been backing the SDF with its air power and some troops, said Daesh was using these women and children as "human shields".

"Civilians who have escaped are reporting ISIS [Daesh] is using them as human shields and killing innocent civilians in order to intimidate others from trying to leave," Sean Ryan said.

The Kurdish-led SDF launched the offensive to expel Daesh from the eastern banks of the Euphrates in September.

Trump on Friday promised announcements linked to "the eradication of the caliphate" within 24 hours, but a top SDF commander then warned the battle would take a few more days.

The US president in December shocked allies when he announced he would withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria because Daesh had been "beaten".

That plan is set to be accelerated after a victory announcement.

Since 2015, the SDF have been battling Daesh with backing from the international coalition, retaking one major town after another until reaching Baghouz.

They have detained hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for Daesh and repeatedly called on their countries to repatriate them, but Western nations have been reluctant.

Trump early Sunday called on his European allies to bring their nationals home.

"The Caliphate is ready to fall," he said on Twitter.

"The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial," he said, using an alternative acronym for Daesh.

"The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them," Trump said.

"The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go."

Beyond Baghouz, Daesh still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries.

In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and has claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

The US Department of Defence has warned that without sustained counterterrorism pressure, Daesh could resurge within months.

"[Daesh] is still using sleeper cells," spokesman Bali said Sunday.

"Over the past month, more than one foreign sleeper cell was arrested in multiple areas in Syria."

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan has struggled to convince sceptical allies in the international coalition to help secure Syria once US soldiers pull out.

Any withdrawal would leave Syria's Kurds exposed to a long-threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey, which views Kurdish fighters as "terrorists".

They have scrambled to seek a new ally in the Damascus government after spending most of Syria's civil war working towards self-rule.

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