ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – A commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Adnan Efrin, told Kurdistan 24 that there are possibly more than a thousand Islamic State fighters holed up in Baghouz, with the presence of civilians hampering the final assault on the jihadist group’s last stronghold.
“There is no official record, but there are maybe more than a thousand mercenaries [ISIS fighters] there, most of them foreigners: Europeans, Turks, a lot of Iraqis, Asians,” the SDF commander said.
The US-backed, Kurdish-led forces previously explained there were about 1,000 civilians left in the small tented area still under Islamic State control, not much more than 700 square meters large.
“But this was incorrect. Once we started the operation, some 5,000 civilians were liberated. After collecting additional information from the civilians, it seems there are more trapped in the city. The number is higher, you saw it with your own eyes,” Efrin explained.
The SDF commander noted that most civilians who remain in the Islamic State pocket of territory are relatives of the fighters.
“All the [normal] civilians fled earlier, when we opened the corridor 12 days ago. Now, all the families remaining behind are ISIS, their children, wives.”
One civilian who managed to get out of Baghouz on Saturday claimed the resisting fighters were from many nationalities. “They are from all countries: Russia, US, Senegal, Asia,” she said, refusing to give out her name or age.
Reports from the SDF suggest they have liberated some 30,000 civilians, and that for the past week, only Islamic State families remain in the village.
This would explain why the jihadist group has not undertaken the execution of civilians - a previously common practice for the Islamic State as it lost territory - since most of them are relatives. They have also been providing the civilians with food despite being besieged by the SDF.
Hundreds of civilians that fled Baghouz on Saturday seemed to show little remorse for joining the group, with some even stating the Islamic State would “eventually return,” calling the forces fighting the group “enemies” and “infidels” as they surrendered to the SDF.
Among them are Russians, Kurds, and Turks. Most foreign women who were caught with the Islamic State refuse to talk to journalists.
Zeinab, a civilian from Raqqa who was most likely married to an Islamic State fighter, said the “brothers [ISIS fighters in Baghouz] were distributing food to the families in a proper manner. There is plenty of water because there are a lot of wells. We were never cut off from water. There was even canned food,” she claimed.
Another woman affirmed only the children had problems with access to food, saying “There was no proper food for the kids.”
Kawther Ahmed (23), who recently escaped from Baghouz, said the situation is “normal [for civilians],” repeating the line “the state [Islamic State] is distributing food,” making “no distinction” between the people, and handing out food “equally to everyone.”
She pointed to the coalition air strikes as their seemingly only problem as they “sometimes hit us.”
SDF commander Efrin denied there was a deal with the Islamic State to evacuate civilians. “There is no agreement, just rumours on social media.”
“All of them are families, their wives, children, and they don’t want them to leave, but they cannot control them anymore, so they let them go,” Efrin asserted.
One truck driver called Nasr (28), however, complained all the families claim to be civilians but are lying. “They say they were businessmen, had normal jobs, but they are all ISIS, they all belong to the Islamic State.”
While the men who escaped Baghouz were investigated by US soldiers if they were foreigners, and then sent to jail, the women were inspected by the SDF and brought to internally displaced camps, he said.
The commander also had no information on the number of Yezidis who were kidnapped by the Islamic State that were liberated during the operation. “Every time civilians leave, Yezidis are also among them.”
Efrin added there was no new information regarding hostages and civilians from Kobani and Raqqa that were taken by the Islamic State over the past few years but that efforts are still ongoing.
”They still had some of our soldiers. Based on information obtained from these areas, we can carry out special operations.”
“We want to liberate them as well as other hostages, other [foreign] journalists. We hope to liberate some of our comrades based on information obtained here.”
Hundreds of civilians were transported out of the Syrian town of #Baghuz on Saturday and taken to the Al Hawl displaced persons camp. Among them are women with membership in #ISIS and their children. They will be kept in a separate section of the IDP camp.— Kurdistan 24 English (@K24English) February 23, 2019
📹: @vvanwilgenburg pic.twitter.com/tCqLDFKxNe
The Kurdish official warned it was not clear whether there are foreign hostages in Baghouz. “If they have not been killed, they are one hundred percent in Baghouz. But until now, we cannot confirm if they are alive or not.”
The SDF has not received any information on “the civilians from Kobani, nor about the journalists from Sky News, nor about [Italian priest] Paolo, same with SDF officials, Kurdish journalists, all of them who were in the hands [of the Islamic State] before, and we do not know if they are alive or not.”
“We have no information of some ISIS fighters or their leadership who may have managed to escape Baghouz using tunnels to Iraq,” Efrin continued.
Islamic State fighters cannot easily cross the border, which is controlled by the Iraqi army on the Iraqi side and the SDF on the Syrian side.
However, inside the village, “there are a lot of tunnels, but between Baghouz and Iraq, I don’t know,” he said. As civilians remain in Baghouz and with a new estimate of the number of fighters resisting in the village, it is expected the final phase of the SDF’s assault on the Islamic State will take longer than previously announced.
Editing by Nadia Riva