ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told Kurdistan 24 reporter Ekrem Salih on Monday that the presence of civilians in a small area of about 600 square meters in the village of Baghouz is hampering its liberation.
Islamic State fighters are now contained to the eastern town of Baghouz, along the Euphrates River, but some militants have refused to surrender and are still trying to launch attacks while hiding among civilians.
Syrian Kurdish top official Aldar Xelil, in an Op-Ed for Ronahi on Saturday, confirmed that the Islamic State, who once controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, now only hold an area no larger than a square kilometer.
The Islamic State, which according to US officials once had territory over 100,000 square kilometers – the size of the UK – under its control, has now been reduced to a small number of tents.
Hogir Heseke, an SDF fighter on the frontlines, told Kurdistan 24 that the “remaining ISIS fighters are hiding among civilians,” and that it made it hard to “remove the militants.”
“We cannot attack them because we are worried civilians will fall [...] As you can see, ISIS only controls a small part of Baghouz, and soon we will attack them,” he added while pointing to tents hosting Islamic State fighters and their families, as well as civilians.
Adnan al-Ahmed, another SDF fighter, told Kurdistan 24 that the presence of civilians was “creating a problem” for the SDF.
“We are trying to keep the civilians safe. If the situation were not like this, Baghouz would have been liberated in hours,” he explained. “But because there are civilians present, we have to be careful and precise with our advances.”
Kurdistan 24 reporter Akram Salih reported that the US-led coalition is still monitoring the last Islamic State-held pocket to “prevent fighters from fleeing” to regime areas, the Iraqi border, or from penetrating SDF-held regions.
On Monday, Islamic State militants attempted a counter-attack in which three suicide bombers killed a number of fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed.
So far, the SDF has refused any deal to allow the jihadist group to evacuate their remaining fighters to Idlib, in the northwest of the country where other extremist and rebel groups also maintain a presence. They also aim to free prisoners and civilians who are still held by the Islamic State.
Some 300 Islamic State fighters, along with hundreds of civilians, have refused to surrender in Baghouz and have attempted to negotiate a way out.
The SDF fears that the loss of Baghouz could lead the Islamic State to carry out massacres against civilians if they fail to find a way out.
Spokesperson for the US-led coalition, Col. Sean Ryan, told Kurdistan 24 on Saturday that the fight against the Islamic State in the Middle Euphrates River Valley continues.
“There has been some lapses in the battle as we continue to see hundreds of civilians still attempting to flee to safety,” Ryan stated.
“Civilians who have escaped are reporting ISIS is using them as human shields and killing innocent civilians in order to intimidate others from trying to leave.”
According to Nicolas A. Heras, a Middle East security analyst at the Center for a New American Security, “the battle for Baghouz is at the delicate stage where continued military operations can cause more harm than good.”
“ISIS has deployed its remaining forces in such a way that civilian casualties would be maximized, which is similar to what occurred in Raqqa,” he concluded.
Editing by Nadia Riva