More surrenders from ISIS Syria bastion as end nears

BAGHOUZ, Syria – Kurdish-led forces said Tuesday, March 12, more people were surrendering from the Islamic State group's (IS, formerly known as ISIS or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) last scrap of territory in Syria, after overnight air raids and shelling ravaged jihadist outposts.

A ragged tent encampment in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz is all that remains of a once-sprawling ISIS "caliphate" declared in 2014 across large swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have been trying to crush holdout ISIS fighters for weeks but the mass outpouring of men, women and children from the riverside hamlet has bogged down their advance.

Backed by the US-led coalition, the SDF renewed their assault on Sunday, March 10, after warning remaining ISIS fighters that the time for surrendering was up.

Airstrikes and shelling have pummelled Baghouz for two nights in a row, killing scores of fighters and prompting hundreds of jihadists and their relatives to surrender.

"There was fierce fighting," Ali Cheir, an SDF unit commander, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) from a rudimentary outpost inside the village.

"The objective of our advance is to terrorize ISIS fighters so they surrender, and for the civilians to come out," said the 27-year-old fighter.

The frontline was quiet Tuesday morning, hours after the airstrikes and rocket attacks on Monday, March 11, night engulfed the last ISIS pocket in flames.

The commander said the SDF had slowed its offensive after daybreak to allow for jihadists and their relatives to turn themselves in.

"There are people handing themselves over now and we have completely halted fire so that they can surrender," he said.

Another SDF official who asked not to be named said that his force and the coalition only target ISIS positions at night.

'Target reached'

Beyond the frontline, warplanes were heard rumbling overhead, as the crackle of gunfire rang from the outskirts of the ISIS encampment.

On a hilltop overlooking the embattled village on Monday night, an AFP correspondent saw a blaze ravaging the riverside encampment.

SDF fighters launched several artillery shells from hundreds of meters (yards) away.

Rawan, an SDF fighter, tracked one of his shots as it whizzed past a field. "Excellent... target reached," he rejoiced, as it hit a fence.

Coalition warplanes pounded the jihadist redoubt with 20 airstrikes, destroying armored vehicles and arms caches, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said.

He said US-backed forces clashed with jihadists on several fronts, killing nearly 40 ISIS fighters.

Since December, almost 59,000 people have left the last ISIS redoubt, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around a tenth of them suspected jihadist fighters.

The United Nations said the numbers from Baghouz arriving in one Kurdish-run camp further north for the displaced  were smaller than in previous weeks.

It said they were reaching the camp in a worse state than before.

The UN's food agency said it is concerned about their well-being.

"On Sunday night more than 3,000 people, mostly women and children in a poor state, reached the camp, bringing the population there to over 65,000," the WFP said.

"WFP is deeply concerned about the welfare of tens of thousands of people recently arriving at the Al-Hol camp," it said Tuesday.

Around 113 people – two-thirds of them children under 5 – have died en route to the camp or shortly after arriving since December, the UN's humanitarian coordination office OCHA says.

'Battles are not over'

At the height of its brutal rule, ISIS controlled a stretch of land in Syria and Iraq the size of the United Kingdom.

The total capture of the Baghouz camp by the SDF would mark the end of the cross-border "caliphate" it proclaimed 5 years ago.

But beyond Baghouz, ISIS retains a presence in eastern Syria's vast Badia desert and sleeper cells in the northeast.

The jihadists have continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held territory in recent months, and the US military has warned of the need to maintain a "vigilant offensive."

The group released a video late Monday allegedly showing jihadists in Baghouz, quietly defiant in the face of the advancing SDF.

"If we had thousands of kilometers and now we only have some kilometers left, it is said we have lost – but God's judging standard is different," said a man named Abu Abdel Adheem.

"The battles are not over," he said, sitting on the ground in a circle with two men and a young boy in a hooded jacket.

Baghouz is the latest front on Syria's complex civil war, which enters its ninth year this month.

Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since the conflict erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests. –