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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 March 2019

US-backed Syria force hopes for total evacuation of Baghouz

The SDF has said it wants to ensure all civilians have been evacuated from the besieged enclave before launching a final assault

The US-backed Syrian force that is waging the final battle against ISIS in Baghouz says that it hopes to complete the evacuation of people who wish to leave the last sliver of the group’s territory on Thursday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have laid siege to the final ISIS-held area but is waiting for all civilians to leave the enclave before it begins what it says will be the final offensive to liberate the pocket.

Thousands of people, both civilians and fighters, have streamed out of Baghouz in recent weeks, leaving camps holding those who left overwhelmed. Many ISIS fighters have surrendered amid a lack of food, water and medical supplies.

"The evacuation operations will continue today too and we hope they will be completed today," SDF commander Adnan Afrin said.

After a long humanitarian pause, the offensive to retake the area was resumed on Friday, but the advance has been stalled by ISIS resistance and the presence of more civilians in the pocket.

According to the SDF, scores of ISIS fighters left Baghouz on Thursday. They were screened and searched for concealed weapons and explosives.

The men were divided into three groups, Syrians, Iraqis and other nationalities.

The battle for Baghouz is significant because it would represent the end of ISIS’s state project that its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi announced in July 2014.

In the past four and a half years, battles have been waged across Iraq and Syria to wrestle territory back from the group and this half a square mile pocket represents the last vestiges of an entity that once stretched the size of Jordan.

But not all of the ISIS fighters in Baghouz are surrendering. Hundreds were caught on Thursday trying to escape the last scrap of land. Some 400 Islamic State fighters were captured trying to leave Baghouz along with smugglers, a senior SDF commander said.

A group of fully veiled women being evacuated from Baghouz on Wednesday shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) as they gathered near a checkpoint where the SDF were searching them and one hit a journalist with a can of tuna.

Among those who came out on Wednesday were 11 captive children from the Yazidi community. ISIS subjected the Yazidis to mass slaughter and enslavement in what the United Nations called a genocide, after overrunning the community's heartland of Sinjar in Iraq in 2014.

Four Shiite Muslim children abducted from the Iraqi city of Tel Afar four years ago were also freed and the SDF would try to reunite them with their parents said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the militia.

Some fighters are also still hiding out in remote desert areas or have gone underground to wage a guerrilla insurgency.

As Western countries ponder what to do with their nationals that have fought for ISIS and left the group's territory, many of them languishing in Kurdish prisons, Sweden offered a new proposal on Thursday.

It floated the idea of an international tribunal to try foreign fighters who have fought alongside the militant group in Syria.

Swedish Justice Minister Morgan Johansson says he "sees great advantages to be able to convict those who have committed crimes" in connection with the fighting.

He said on Thursday after a meeting of the European Union's Justice and Home Affairs Council in Brussels, "here is a situation where I believe we can use the same model" as the international tribunals that investigated the atrocities in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

The Swedish plan had not been discussed.

Other countries have chosen to pass their nationals on to Iraq, allowing them to be prosecuted through the Iraqi judicial system for crimes committed on Iraqi territory.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said last week that Baghdad could help transfer foreign fighters from Syria to his country to face trial due to concerns about their trials taking place under the Syrian Kurds, who are a non-state actor and do not have a fully legitimate legal system.

Updated: March 7, 2019 05:48 PM

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