Civilians at risk as US-backed Syrian forces target IS

UN rights chief says families in remaining area controlled by the Islamic State are being prevented from leaving as US-led coalition and its allies ramp up air and ground strikes.

GENEVA - Several Islamic State group jihadists and dozens of civilians, including foreigners, quit the last IS-held pocket in eastern Syria on Tuesday, US-backed forces said.

IS, which in 2014 declared a cross-border "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq, has been expelled from all the land it held except for a patch of Baghouz village.

Backed by air strikes by the US-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces have already retaken most of the village.

The SDF are on the brink of defeating IS in Baghouz, where it estimates a few hundred Islamic State fighters and about 2,000 civilians are under siege.

SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said a convoy of trucks entered Baghouz on Tuesday to transfer jihadists and their relatives out to SDF-held territory.

"Dozens of civilians and some fighters have handed themselves over to the SDF," he told reporters at nearby Al-Omar oil field.

The spokesman said foreigners were among leaving but did not specify their nationalities or if they were civilians or fighters.

"This is the first time civilians will make it out in four days," Afrin said.

Only two options

Jihadists defending the last scrap of their "caliphate" in eastern Syria will be "killed in battle" if they don't surrender, the Kurdish-led force said ahead of a final showdown, but said it would first try to evacuate civilians from the group holdout.

"We are working on secluding and evacuating civilians and then we will attack. This could happen soon," SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said, declining to provide more details on the operation.

At a civilian collection point outside Baghouz on Tuesday, an AFP correspondent saw a convoy of trucks driving towards the village.

IS fighters "have only two options, either they surrender or they will be killed in battle," Bali said.

IS declared a "caliphate" across large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but today just half a square kilometre (0.2 square miles) remain after various offensives.

A small hamlet of buildings in Baghouz is all that is left of the proto-state, which at its height spanned an area the size of the United Kingdom.

An SDF source said the convoy of vehicles could transport civilians if any made it out of the jihadist redoubt.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, reported Tuesday ongoing negotiations between the SDF and jihadists, who are allegedly demanding safe passage out of the Baghouz pocket.

SDF officials, however, deny any negotiations with IS fighters.

Many remain

Thousands of people -- mostly women and children related to IS members -- have streamed out of IS turf in recent weeks, but no civilians had emerged this week.

In past weeks, jihadists among the new arrivals have been detained, while civilians have been ferried on trucks to Kurdish-held camps for the displaced to the north.

The International Rescue Committee said Monday that 62 people, mostly children, had died on the way to the Al-Hol camp or shortly after arriving in past weeks.

Afrin said some diehard jihadists were still refusing to surrender and "many civilians remain".

The United Nations earlier expressed concern over "the situation of some 200 families, including many women and children, who are reportedly trapped" by IS, whose forces are stopping many from fleeing.

Many of the families "... continue to be subjected to intensified air and ground-based strikes by the US-led Coalition forces and their SDF allies on the ground," UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

"We understand that ISIL appears to be preventing some of them if not all of them from leaving. So that's potentially a war crime on the part of ISIL," her spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

The SDF attacking Islamic State have an obligation under international law to take all precautions to protect civilians who are mixed in with the foreign fighters, he said.

Eight years in

Beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries.

In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and the jihadists have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

US President Donald Trump stunned allies in December when he announced all 2,000 US troops would withdraw from Syria as IS had been defeated.

The withdrawal plan is expected to be accelerated once the last IS redoubt falls.

Any such pullout would leave Syria's Kurds exposed to a long threatened Turkish assault, and has forced them to mend ties with Damascus after years of seeking self-rule in the northeast of the country.

Almost eight years into a civil war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, Baghouz is the main front in the conflict.

But sporadic regime shelling has also targeted a northwestern region of Idlib held by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, despite the area being protected by a massive regime offensive by a September ceasefire deal.

On Tuesday, regime rocket fire killed four civilians including a child in that jihadist bastion's town of Khan Sheikhun, the Observatory said.

Twin explosions in the bustling centre of rebel-held Idlib city on Monday killed at least 15 people and injured scores, medics and witnesses said. The UN's Bachelet put the death toll from that incident at 16 with more than 70 injured.

Bachelet also voiced concern for some 20,000 people who fled the ISIL-controlled areas in eastern Deir al-Zor governorate in recent weeks. They are being held in makeshift camps run by the Kurdish armed groups, including the SDF, who are reported to be preventing IDPs from leaving the camps, she said.

"Particular care needs to be taken with the civilians and if possible they should be treated humanely, and allowed to leave the camps. They shouldn't be held in detention unless they are suspected of committing a particular crime," Colville said.