Jeff Seldin – VOA News
Hundreds more men, women and children trudged out of the last corner of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Syria on Thursday, increasingly defiant that the terror group's defeat was imminent.
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces officials, eager to declare victory after laying siege to the northeastern Syrian village of Baghuz more than a week ago, expressed hope this latest exodus of both IS followers and those kidnapped or enslaved by the terror group would be the last.
"We hope they will be completed today," SDF Cmdr. Adnan Afrin said early Thursday.
Halfway around the world, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East warned against any hint of satisfaction or complacency at the sight of beaten and battered IS fighters.
"What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities," U.S. Central Command's Gen. Joseph Votel told lawmakers in Washington, using an acronym for the terror group.
"Observations by our men and women on the ground highlight that the ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remain unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized," he added.
Over the past four days, more than 8,000 people have left Baghuz, a once-sprawling village of homes and farmland that, after days of intense fighting, has been reduced to a collection of wrecked homes and tents upon a pockmarked terrain.
They joined about 16,000 others who left IS-held Baghuz — described by Votel as encompassing "less than a single square mile" (1.6 square kilometers) — over the previous week and a half.
'Not a Defeat'
As if to back up his point, many of the most recent evacuees still held out hope that IS would prevail.
"It's not a defeat, no, it's nothing," an Iraqi woman, who identified herself as Oum Mohammed, told cameras with the French news agency AFP on Wednesday. "The brave ones are still left. The fearful have left, thanks to God, but those who remain will win by the grace of God."
It is a sentiment that has given some SDF officials reason for concern.
"We expect a fierce battle later on after the end of the civilian evacuation," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told al-Hadath television Thursday. "Those that will remain in Baghuz are the ones brimming with Salafi jihadi ideology and the ones for whom surrender is not an option."
Despite the optimism of some of his colleagues, Bali cautioned that could take more time.
"We are still hearing about the presence of thousands inside Baghuz," he added.
U.S. officials, while confident that the IS caliphate is witnessing its final days, have likewise warned that many more IS fighters may be lurking in the tunnels beneath the village.
"We have been surprised by just how many people have come out," a U.S. defense official told VOA on condition of anonymity, adding there may be a thousand fighters still waiting to make a last stand.
Coalition and SDF officials have described the network of tunnels and caves as complex, extending possibly for more than two kilometers, and rigged with explosives and booby traps.