Jeff Seldin - Voice of America
Coalition warplanes launched new airstrikes against the last remaining enclave of the Islamic State terror group's self-declared caliphate after efforts to evacuate additional civilians stalled.
The strikes, accompanied by artillery fire, targeted the outskirts of the final piece of IS-held territory in the eastern Syrian village of Baghuz on Thursday, a day after 2,000 civilians were evacuated from the area.
— zana amedi (@zana_med) February 21, 2019
"Coalition warplanes hit several targets on the western front," Adnan Afrin, a commander with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told VOA.
"This created mayhem among the [IS] terrorists and gave an opportunity to some civilians in their captivity to flee," he added.
The strikes allowed hundreds of civilians to escape the IS enclave by foot, Afrin said, noting some fighters were taken into custody.
Coalition and SDF officials say they believe hundreds of IS fighters remain holed up in Baghuz, many taking refuge in a collection of tents spanning no more than several hundred square meters. Officials, however, fear many IS fighters are also hidden in a network of tunnels and caves below the village, using an untold number of civilians as human shields.
Efforts to negotiate the release of the civilians have been slow, as a core group of the remaining IS fighters refuses to surrender.
Previous attempts to evacuate civilians, most of them from IS families, were slowed or delayed when fighters opened fire on those trying to flee.
SDF officials say once all remaining civilians have been evacuated, they intend to clear Baghuz of IS for good.
They say the IS fighters are running low on supplies such as ammunition and medicine, but admit it may be several days before they can move in.
"SDF can't launch the last offensive with them remaining in the camp," SDF Commander Zana Amedi tweeted Wednesday. "Operations to rescue civilians are likely to continue in coming days, since thousands remain trapped."
Complicating efforts, SDF officials and observers on the ground say IS fighters, either from Baghuz or from sleeper cells located nearby, have launched a series of counterattacks on the outskirts of Baghuz and in nearby areas.
Kurdish officials, as well as the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Thursday blamed the terror group for a suicide bombing at the al-Omar oil field, in the nearby town of Al-Sahil.
SOHR monitors on the ground said the blast targeted a convoy of workers. They said at least 20 people were killed, including six members of the SDF.
Despite such setbacks, Kurdish forces say they expect total defeat of IS in Syria by the end of the week.
Thousands of people, including civilians and some suspected foreign fighters who had joined IS, have streamed out of Baghuz over the past several weeks.
Many have ended up in camps like al-Hol in northeastern Syria, unsure of what will become of them. And SDF officials have said they have 800 to 1,000 foreign fighters in custody.
Late Tuesday, the SDF transferred more than 150 IS fighters to Iraqi custody, sending them by truck across the Syrian border. Iraqi officials said the move was part of a deal to repatriate and prosecute members of the terror group.
Still, questions remain about what to do with thousands of other foreign fighters and their families. Many anti-IS coalition members, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, have refused to take some back.
There are also concerns that once Baghuz is liberated, IS still has the capacity to wage an insurgency in both Syria and Iraq.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials warn up to 30,000 IS fighters are still spread across the two countries.
VOA Watch Desk's Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.