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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 March 2019

Mass evacuations from Syria's last ISIS holdout continue

US-backed Syrian forces struggle to search and screen thousands of people before militants’ last stand

Women sit together with their belongings near the village of Baghouz. Reuters 
Women sit together with their belongings near the village of Baghouz. Reuters 

A week after US-backed forces began to clear the last patch of ISIS-held territory in Syria, the mass movement of men, women and children continues.

On Monday, dozens of women huddled with their children in the chilly desert night after being moved by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The civilians were searched and screened in the dark, after the second organised clearance since Friday.

Last week hundreds of people streamed out of the ISIS pocket in more than 40 lorries and made their way west through the Syrian countryside. The relocation of civilians comes amid a stand-off between the extremist group, besieged in a small sliver of land along the Euphrates river, and the SDF.

Overwhelmed by the mass movement of nearly 5,000 people out of ISIS territory, the SDF on Sunday urged governments to take responsibility for their citizens among ISIS’s ranks.

“As thousands of foreigners flee Daesh’s crumbling caliphate, the burden which is already too heavy for us to handle is getting even heavier,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted. “This will remain as the biggest challenge awaiting us unless governments take action and fulfil their responsibilities for their citizens.”

Members of the persecuted Yazidi community were also among the group of civilians, Mr Bali said. About 300 ISIS fighters are believed to be holed up with the remaining civilians.

The presence of thousands of civilians in the strip of land surprised officials and slowed the campaign to declare the military defeat of the terrorist group.

Those arriving from the tiny ISIS enclave included Syrians, Iraqis, French, Polish, Tajiks, Egyptians and others.

Exhausted and bewildered, the women and children looked spooked by the cameras as several journalists approached them in the darkness. Those being relocated were lit only by the vehicles of the SDF parked nearby, AP reported.

Toddlers were in tears and mothers looked for nappies for their babies after the trip over a rugged road for a couple of hours to the desert screening area.

Men were separated from the women and children. Soldiers said they were checking for any sharp objects, weapons or information about the militants remaining inside.

Updated: February 26, 2019 07:15 PM

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