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Hundreds more IS fighters stream out of Syria enclave

Hundreds of bedraggled IS fighters and their families filed out of Baghouz on Wednesday. [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 March, 2019

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The Syrian Democratic Forces leading the assault on Baghouz expect more fighters to surrender with their families in tow before moving deeper in the Islamic State group's last redoubt.

Hundreds of bedraggled IS fighters and their families filed out of Baghouz on Wednesday, as US-backed Kurdish forces pummelled the extremist group's last besieged enclave in Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leading the assault expected more fighters to surrender with their families in tow before moving deeper in the Islamic State group's last redoubt.

The tiny village on the banks of the Euphrates River is where diehard IS fighters were expected to make a last bloody last stand but huge unexplained numbers of people have left the redoubt.

SDF officers and aid groups have voiced their 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.

Around 10 percent of the 57,000 people who have fled IS's last bastion since December were jihadists trying to slip back into civilian life, SDF officers and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have said.

A senior SDF officer said 400 jihadis were captured on Tuesday night as they attempted to slip out of Baghouz in an escape attempt, he said, 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 Friday after a long humanitarian pause.

The assumption was 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 airstrikes 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 troops.

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

Western forces from the US-led coalition - which also includes France, one of the main purveyors of foreign fighters to IS - could be seen looking 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 the security risk some of them could pose and of a negative reaction from the public.

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

Iraq has already confirmed receiving 14 French nationals from Syria to be tried there.

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