Islamic State group: Civilians evacuated from last Syria enclave

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter stands guard as people leave the IS-held pocket in Baghuz on lorries (20 February 2019)Image copyright

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The UN had expressed concern for 200 families trapped inside

Civilians have been evacuated from the last village in Syria still held by the Islamic State (IS) group.

A convoy on Wednesday carried hundreds of men, women and children from Baghuz, near the Iraqi border.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance have said they are waiting for their removal before launching an offensive against militants “entrenched inside”.

The SDF say it cannot confirm if any militants were among the passengers.

Those removed will be taken to a screening point, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

There have been conflicting reports on how close the SDF is to ridding the enclave of IS fighters.

The US-led coalition fighting IS has said the “most hardened” fighters remain within Baghuz.

The SDF has said the group are waiting for confirmation all civilians are out before storming Baghuz to target the fighters.

“Our forces said from the start that they have two options: unconditional surrender or for the battle to continue until its end,” Mr Bali, told the Reuters news agency.

But one monitoring group suggested that the remaining militants could have all left the enclave after negotiations with the SDF.

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The SDF said evacuees would be taken to a screening point

As many as 2,000 people may have left the enclave on Wednesday – one day after a convoy of about 50 lorries arrived on its outskirts to get them out, Reuters reports.

The vehicles were brought in after the UN expressed concern about the fate of some 200 families reportedly trapped in the area.

Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said they were apparently being actively prevented from leaving by IS and continued to be subjected to intense bombardment by SDF and US-led coalition forces.

At least 15 of the vehicles were witnessed leaving by journalists near the scene on Wednesday.

As night fell on Baghuz , it was not clear how many people still remain inside.

Some 20,000 civilians who have fled the area in recent weeks have been taken by the SDF to a makeshift camp for displaced people at al-Hol, in Hassakeh province.

Among them are the wives and children of IS militants and many foreign nationals, including the British teenager Shamima Begum, who was 15 when she ran away from her home to join IS four years ago.

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Media captionIs this the end for Islamic State?

Ms Begum, who has just given birth to a son, has said she wants to return to the UK. But the government wants to revoke her British citizenship – a decision she called “unjust”.

Five years ago, IS controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) of territory stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq. It proclaimed the creation of a “caliphate”, imposing its brutal rule on almost eight million people and generating billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

Now, an estimated 300 militants are holed up inside about 0.5 sq km of land.

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