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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 April 2019

Hundreds leave Syria’s ISIS holdout in first evacuation

Their departure from Hajin comes as Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces prepare final offensive

 Kurdish-led forces seized Hajin from ISIS on December 14, 2018. AFP.
 Kurdish-led forces seized Hajin from ISIS on December 14, 2018. AFP.

Hundreds of residents have been evacuated from the final ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria, according to a war monitor.

About 600 people, mostly women and children, were allowed to leave Hajin on Saturday the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

The desert areas around the small town on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria is one of the last areas where ISIS maintains a presence. At the height of its power in 2014, the group controlled territory in Syria and Iraq roughly the size of Britain.

"More than 600 people, mainly women and children, were evacuated on 25 buses sent" by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), SOHR said.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that several dozen militant fighters were among those evacuated to areas held by the Kurdish-Arab alliance.

The SDF, backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition, launched an offensive in September to oust ISIS from the rump of the once-sprawling "caliphate" it proclaimed in 2014.

Mr Abdel Rahman said some 16,000 people, including 760 ISIS fighters, have fled the area since the start of December.

But "this is the first time that buses have been provided by the SDF and coalition", he said, suggesting a potential deal had been struck between the warring sides.

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The US-led coalition on Saturday fired over 20 missiles against militant positions, SOHR said.

The monitor said some 300 SDF combatants had deployed near the village of Sousa in preparations for a final assault.

Despite the SDF advances, die-hard ISIS fighters have continued launching desperate counteroffensives. Last week, militants took advantage of poor visibility caused by bad weather to launch a coordinated attack.

"Twenty-three SDF fighters were killed and nine IS jihadists were also killed in fighting that lasted all night and into Monday morning," Mr Abdel Rahman said.

At least two suicide bombers were used in the attack but the ISIS fighters failed to hold any territory. "On Monday morning, the SDF launched an offensive and retook all the positions they lost," the Observatory said.

According to the Observatory, 1,087 ISIS fighters have been killed since the start of the operation on September 10, while 602 members of the SDF have died.

In total, an estimated 25,000 people have fled violence over the last six months in eastern Syria, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday. The agency warned about "mounting civilian casualties" in the area, without providing figures.

Ahead of Saturday's evacuation, the UN estimated that 2000 civilians remained trapped in Hajin. "Conditions are reported to be increasingly desperate," the UN said.

In the past five weeks, more than 8,500 civilians displaced from around Hajin have sought shelter in neighbouring Al Hassakeh governorate. The dangerous and difficult journey for civilians to reach safety sometimes involves spending several nights in the desert exposed to cold and wet winter weather without access to food or water. This has contributed to the deaths of six children, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.

The fight to eliminate the remaining pockets of ISIS has been shaken by President Donald Trump's shock announcement in December that he is withdrawing US troops from Syria.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday sought to reassure Washington's Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS, who fear the departure of American troops would allow Turkey to attack them. The withdrawal was merely a "tactical change", he said, telling reporters in Abu Dhabi he was "optimistic" a way could be found to protect the Kurds while allowing Turks to "defend their country from terrorists".

"We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those," he said.

Updated: January 13, 2019 06:57 PM

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