Hundreds shuffle out of last IS redoubt in east Syria

Tony Gamal-Gabriel and Rouba El Husseini
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The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have rained fire on holdout Islamic State group jihadists

Hundreds of men, women and children trudged out of the Islamic State group's last sliver of territory Thursday as US-backed Syrian fighters once again slowed their advance to crush the "caliphate".

All that remains of a once sprawling proto-state the jihadists declared in 2014 is a battered riverside camp in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and warplanes of a US-led coalition backing them, have rained fire on the enclave since Sunday, blitzing thousands of IS members into surrender.

The Kurdish-led force said "1,300 terrorists and their families" gave themselves up on Thursday as its fighters slowed their advance to allow them to exit the enclave.

Those leaving walked slowly up a cliff overlooking the smouldering IS encampment in a bend of the Euphrates River, an AFP reporter said.

Under the drizzle, men with thick beards struggled on crutches, while women stumbled under the weight of bags stuffed full -- one with a toothbrush poking out.

Children followed, covered in dust and with their hair in disarray. A little girl stumbled and fell, losing a pink sandal.

Most of the men appeared to be wounded. One man had an eye patch, another his arm in a sling.

Many, including the children, appeared to be foreigners.

Intermittent firing could be heard Thursday evening.

An SDF fighter told AFP that the force was "consolidating" its positions as sandstorms since Wednesday had hampered the push into IS territory.

Hardliners inside the pocket have been hiding underground from air strikes by a US-led coalition, and unleashing suicide bombers on advancing forces.

- 'Uninhabitable' camps -

A spokesman for the Kurdish units inside the village of Baghouz earlier Thursday said this was slowing progress.

"Those who stayed inside are mostly suicide bombers blowing themselves up, which is impeding the advance," said Jiaker Amed, a spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said his forces had stopped eight suicide bombers from reaching their targets since Wednesday.

Thousands of IS family members, as well as suspected fighters, have poured out of the shrinking pocket in Baghouz in recent weeks.

Since the offensive resumed on Sunday, 3,000 IS members have surrendered, according to the SDF.

About 60,000 people have streamed out of IS-held territory since December, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says, around a tenth of them suspected jihadists.

The exodus has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Kurdish-held camps for the displaced, where women and children have arrived exhausted after weeks of siege.

These include the wives and children of alleged foreign jihadists, hundreds of whom are being held by the Kurdish forces.

Save the Children said Thursday more than 3,500 foreign children from more than 30 countries were estimated to be living in camps in northeast Syria.

Of these, over 2,000 are younger than five, it said.

The United Nations says new arrivals are in a worse state than in previous weeks, but there is hardly space for them at the main camp.

"The conditions within Al-Hol camp are over-crowded, uninhabitable and threaten human dignity and life, with people forced to sleep on the ground during... rain and low temperatures," the UN Population Fund said.

The International Rescue Committee says 120 people -- mainly young children -- have died on their way to the camp or after arrival.

- Donor conference -

At the height of its rule, IS implemented its brutal interpretation of Islam on millions in territory the size of the United Kingdom across Syria and Iraq.

It churned out violent propaganda to attract foreign recruits.

Syria's Kurds have repeatedly called for foreign governments to repatriate the IS suspects they hold, but they have mostly been reluctant.

Since starting with the brutal repression of protests against President Bashar al-Assad, Syria's civil war has killed more than 360,000 and displaced millions.

International donors at a conference in Brussels on Thursday pledged nearly $7 billion in aid for 2019 for civilians caught up in the conflict, but the total fell short of what the UN says is needed.

Assad's forces control almost two-thirds of the country.

But the northwestern bastion of Idlib held by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, as well as a large swathe of the oil-rich northeast controlled by the SDF, remain beyond his reach.

Air strikes by regime ally Russia killed 17 civilians in Idlib on Wednesday, according to the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

It said they were the first such raids on the region since a Russian-Turkish buffer zone deal in September aimed at protecting it from a massive regime assault.