A convoy of trucks carrying hundreds of civilians, including men, women and children, left the last enclave held by ISIS extremists in eastern Syria on Wednesday, signaling a possible end to a standoff that has lasted for more than a week.
An Associated Press team in Baghouz, a village near the Iraqi border where ISIS is making its final stand, counted at least 17 trucks that emerged through a humanitarian corridor used in past weeks to evacuate people from the militants’ last patch of territory along the Euphrates River.
Women, children and men, some with checkered headscarves, or keffiyehs, could be seen through a flap opening on the flatbed trucks. One man carried a crutch; the women were engulfed in niqabs, conservative black garments covering their faces.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed militia spearheading the fight against ISIS in Syria, confirmed the trucks were carrying civilians out of the enclave.
It was not immediately clear if ISIS fighters were also on board the trucks. Around 300 fighters are believed to be holed up in the enclave, along with several hundred civilians.
On Tuesday, Bali said a military operation aimed at ousting the extremists from the area will begin if they don’t surrender, adding that such an operation would take place after separating or evacuating the civilians from the extremists.
An SDF commander, Zana Amedi, said most of the fighters remaining inside the enclave are seriously wounded or sick.
ISIS has been reduced from its self-proclaimed “caliphate” that once spread across much of Syria and Iraq at its height in 2014 to a speck of land on the countries’ shared border.
The SDF has been encircling the remaining ISIS-held territory for days, waiting to declare the territorial defeat of the extremist group.
Nearly 20,000 civilians had left the shrinking area in recent weeks before the evacuation halted last week when the extremists closed all the roads out of the tiny area.