Diehard militants have blocked roads out of the last scrap of their Islamic State group “caliphate” in Syria, US-backed forces fighting them said yesterday, preventing hundreds of civilians from fleeing.
US President Donald Trump called on his European allies to take back alleged militants captured in Syria, prompting Belgium to call for a “European solution” to the security issue.
IS declared a proto-state across parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but has since lost all of it except a tiny patch of less than half a kilometre square in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
Near the front line in the village of Baghouz, the sound of outgoing mortar rounds punctured the otherwise quiet afternoon, an AFP correspondent there said.
There were a few bursts of gunfire from the Baghouz skyline and the thick whir of warplanes overhead. On a rooftop on the edges of the village, a fighter with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces battling IS said that even the frequencies used by the militants to communicate had gone dead. “They used to ask for ammunition by saying: ‘You have five crates of tomatoes.
Bring them to us.’ They spoke in code,” Sheldar Hasakeh said.
“They wouldn’t say they were under fire, they’d say ‘It’s raining on us from the north,’” said the stocky 40-year-old.
“Now their area of control is really squeezed and they don’t have as many walkie talkies.
They’re not talking to each other as much,” he added.
Earlier yesterday, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said IS had blocked roads out of its holdout, preventing up to 2,000 civilians from escaping.
“Daesh has sealed off all the streets,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition said IS was using these women and children as “human shields”.
“Civilians who have escaped are reporting ISIS is using them as human shields,” Sean Ryan said.
Thousands of people have streamed out of the so-called “Baghouz pocket” in recent weeks, but at a collection point for new arrivals yesterday, dozens of tents and a few trucks sat empty. “It’s been two days since anyone came out,” an SDF fighter said.
After years of fighting IS, the SDF hold hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for the group, and well as related women and children.
Syria’s Kurds have repeatedly called for their countries of origin to take them back, but these nations have been reluctant.
The issue has taken on greater urgency, however, amid fears of a security vacuum since Trump’s shock announcement in December that US troops would withdraw.
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