Push on Syria’s Baghouz Blunted by Discovery of Civilians
Xeber24.net – Asharq Al-Awsat
The military operation on the last enclave held by ISIS in eastern Syria has been blunted by the discovery of hundreds of civilians still living there, a commander with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Friday.
The US-backed SDF launched the offensive to liberate the ISIS-held village of Baghouz a week ago, after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them foreign wives of militants, were evacuated through a corridor from the area in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Adnan Afrin told The Associated Press that in the last three days, ISIS militants brought up hundreds of civilians from underground tunnels to make the SDF and US-led coalition aware of their presence.
He estimated that around 1,000 civilians, including women and children, are still in the area. He added that militants were hiding among them and using them as human shields.
“This was a surprise. We did not imagine there would be this number of civilians left,” Afrin said.
He said they were likely to be families of ISIS militants, but their discovery nonetheless has blunted the offensive. “We do not want to cause a massacre against civilians in the last (ISIS) pocket,” he said.
A blitz of airstrikes and shelling last week was believed to signal the end of the campaign against ISIS in its last toehold in Syria. Thousands of people, including many foreign extremists and their families, emerged from the area amid ferocious fighting as the SDF closed in from three sides under the cover of airstrikes by the US-led coalition.
ISIS militants are now clinging to their last square kilometer of land in Baghouz. The anticipated declaration of victory against the group, however, has been delayed by this discovery of a large number of civilians in the area.
The capture of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the conclusion of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq.
It is not clear whether ISIS is holding any civilian prisoners in the enclave, beyond their own families.
“We aim to save any prisoners, but we have no information about them. They can be among the civilians, or in underground prisons, we have no information,” said Afrin.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters discovered late Thursday the bodies of 26 ISIS gunmen who were killed in recent clashes near Baghouz.