BAGHOUZ (Kurdistan 24) – The offensive launched by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the Islamic State has temporarily stopped in the village of Baghouz, in the eastern Euphrates valley near the border with Iraq, SDF fighters said on Tuesday.
In the last pocket of Baghouz, movement and activity by Islamic State militants and their families are visible, as Kurdistan 24 footage below shows.
The scene shows territory under Islamic State control has been reduced to a small plot of land.
SDF fighters on the frontline told Kurdistan 24 that military operations have stalled to prevent civilians, especially children, from becoming casualties of the war.
“We have temporarily stopped the fight because ISIS militants have kept a large number of civilians as human shields,” an SDF fighter explained.
“We are doing our best to avoid harming civilians as there is a large number of them stranded with the militants,” he said.
The militants are holed up in a civilian camp on the outskirts of Baghouz Village. SDF fighters say the civilians there are all family members of Islamic State militants.
Activists also revealed a recent truce had been extended for another five days as of Sunday.
A person familiar with ongoing deliberations told the Associated Press that the jihadist group has asked for an exit path to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, demanding to be allowed to leave with the civilians.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to officially discuss the talks, which he mentioned are taking place indirectly.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the civil war in Syria, also claimed a request by the Islamic State to be evacuated to neighboring Iraq was rejected.
ISIS MILITARY FALL
Earlier this week, the General Commander of the SDF Operation to Eliminate ISIS in Eastern Syria confirmed the fall of the extremist group in the East Euphrates Valley and said victory would be declared in the coming days.
“Da’esh [ISIS] has fallen militarily, and their militants are under fire from our fighters in a small area of about 600 square meters,” Chiya Firat, the General Commander of the operation, told reporters at the Omar Oil Field SDF military base in the Deir al-Zor governorate.
Nevertheless, the fighting continues, and the remaining militants are fiercely resisting but unable to launch counter-attacks as they used to before.
“Daesh militants are not as numerous, but the fighting continues,” an SDF fighter told Kurdistan 24.
“It’s not heavy fighting, but Daesh militants are there and hiding among the civilians,” he further added.
Meanwhile, US-led coalition bombardments are ongoing, and warplanes are monitoring the region at all times to prevent Islamic State militants from fleeing to Iraq or Syrian regime areas.
SDF fighters have also managed to free dozens of their members from the Islamic State last week, but are working to release all military and civilian hostages captured by the extremist group.
Amid the intermittent clashes and bombardments, dozens of civilians flee the Islamic State-held pocket around Baghouz, arriving in SDF-controlled areas.
The SDF has already opened a corridor on the east side of Baghouz, setting up a screening point about 5 kilometers east of the village.
After an initial investigation at the screening point, the women and children are transferred to camps in northeastern Syria, while the men are separately investigated and remain in detention as suspected Islamic State militants or civil servants.
New arrivals from Baghouz this week said they tried to flee earlier, but could not manage the trek because of constant bombardments and the lack of vehicles.
“We were stranded for 20 days because of the bombardments,” a veiled woman told Kurdistan 24.
“We were waiting for vehicles to take us as many people could not travel by foot, and many others left their relatives behind,” she said.
ISIS BLOCKADE ON TWO FRONTS
SDF fighters are tightening the noose on Islamic State militants and targeting them on two fronts: from Baghouz Hill on the eastern front, on the border with Iraq, and from Sousah Village, in the northwest along the Euphrates River.
However, the militants are trying to break the siege by launching thermal rockets and suicide attacks on SDF positions to impede their advancement.
Islamic State militants are also using snipers to fire at SDF positions on the front line.
As hundreds of Islamic State members surrendered to the SDF last week, most of them were revealed to be Iraqis and Syrians. The remaining militants are foreigners who refuse to give up.
With the intermittent fighting ongoing, SDF fighters are waiting for their general command to greenlight the final assault, which they have stated may start suddenly, without prior notice.
Editing by Nadia Riva
(Reporting in Kurdish by Kurdistan 24 correspondent Akram Salih)