BAGHUZ, SYRIA / WASHINGTON, Islamic State (IS) fighters are targeting civilians who are trying to flee the last territory held by the terror group in eastern Syria, U.S.-backed forces told VOA on Thursday.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led alliance, said that IS militants hit a road used by civilians to escape violence as the battle to free the town of Baghuz in Syria's Deir el-Zour province enters its sixth day.
"IS has blocked that road to prevent civilians from coming to the SDF," SDF fighter Ali Ahmed said. "They have targeted civilians there, but we have responded to their attacks against civilians."
Ahmed said that some families of IS fighters are among the fleeing civilians.
Located near the Iraqi border, Baghuz is the last stronghold held by IS extremists in Syria. With the help of the U.S.-led coalition, SDF fighters have pushed out IS from all territories it once held since 2014.
Fierce fighting between IS militants and the U.S.-backed fighters continues as the latter try to gain ground on Baghuz on several fronts.
"We have two main obstacles as we advance on Baghuz," Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesperson, told VOA. "The first one is that [IS] terrorists are holding on to a number of civilians to use them as a bargain chip for their exit."
Bali said the second obstacle for the SDF forces is that IS has a number of hostages who had been arrested and detained by the militants.
IS controls about 5 square kilometers of territory inside the Syrian town, local military officials said.
Ivan Hasib, a Syrian reporter covering the battle, told VOA that he witnessed an unusual movement by U.S. military vehicles in the area.
"It seems that even the Americans are trying to rescue those civilians and hostages from IS," Hasib said in a phone interview.
He said the remaining IS fighters in Baghuz are hoping to exchange hostages for a safe exit into the Iraqi desert.
"There must be must some sort of negations between IS and SDF about the hostages, because even [U.S.-led] coalition airstrikes have stopped since Tuesday night," Hasib said, adding that SDF fighters were forced to pause their military operations on the northeastern front in Baghuz.
"We can't start marching toward it from this side because of civilians. Many civilians are using this road to this side. So we're here to protect them," Mezlum Kobani, an SDF commander, told VOA.
According to SDF officials, more than 5,000 civilians have been rescued from IS in Baghuz.
Source: Voice of America