U.S.-backed forces are one step closer to liberating the last patch of Syrian territory held by the Islamic State terror group, but a final assault could still be days away.
"The most hardened of ISIS fighters still remain," the global coalition tweeted Wednesday, using an acronym for the terror group, adding that U.S.-backed forces "continue to receive civilians attempting to escape to safety."
The coalition statement came hours after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces broke a stalemate with IS fighters still holed up in the village of Baghuz, securing the release of hundreds of civilians, including women and children.
"After many days of trying, we were able to evacuate the first batch today," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told the French news agency (AFP).
Witnesses said they saw a convoy of about 10 trucks leave the Islamic State's last enclave, a patch of land covered with tents spanning no more than several hundred square meters.
They said the trucks carried hundreds of people. At least two of the trucks carried men identified as IS fighters who had surrendered.
A senior SDF official said an initial estimate shows that in all, as many as 2,000 people made it out of Baghuz Wednesday. But he said possibly 1,000 more remain, all of them IS fighters or IS families, and that the majority are originally from Iraq.
But SDF officials said they are hesitant to move in on the remaining fighters until all the civilians can be evacuated.
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."
Rumors of a deal between the SDF and the remaining IS fighters have been circulating for days. The SDF first sent the trucks into Baghuz on Tuesday to evacuate civilians, but SDF commanders said they were prevented from leaving when IS fighters opened fire.
Late Tuesday, witnesses reported two coalition airstrikes targeting parts of the IS enclave.
SDF and coalition officials estimate there are still about 300 IS fighters in Baghuz, and there have been ongoing attacks by small groups of IS fighters � some thought to be part of sleeper cells � on SDF positions throughout the area.
"Most of them are seriously wounded or sick," SDF commander Zana Amedi tweeted Tuesday, adding the IS holdouts were facing the "beginning of the end."
"SDF made final warning to remaining militants to surrender," he added.
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 at least 800 foreign fighters in custody.
The U.S. is demanding that its European allies, like Britain, France and Germany, repatriate any citizens who joined IS and prosecute them. But many of the countries have pushed back.
Britain announced Tuesday that it was stripping the citizenship of 19-year-old Shamima Begum, who ran away to join IS in 2015.
On Wednesday, Germany's interior minister said in a newspaper interview that his country would need to certify the identities of any German IS fighters and their families, and know what they allegedly did with the terror group "before anyone gets put on a plane."
The impending end of IS's physical caliphate could also hasten the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.
U.S. President Donald Trump first announced the pullout in December, and tweeted Saturday "We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!"
Kurdish forces say they expect total defeat of IS in Syria by the end of the week.
"In a few days, we will announce a great victory over the largest terrorist organization that waged war on the world," a senior Kurdish fighter said Tuesday.
But U.S. defense and intelligence officials have warned that even after the terror group's self-declared caliphate falls, there are still up to 30,000 IS fighters spread across Syria and Iraq, many of whom have already begun engaging in a full-scale insurgency.
Source: Voice of America