U.S.-backed Syrian forces have transferred a group of Islamic State fighters to authorities in Iraq as they await the start of an operation to clear the last area in Syria still under the militant group’s control.
An Iraqi security official told the Associated Press on Thursday the transfer involved more than 150 Iraqi members of Islamic State, while Reuters quoted a local Iraqi mayor saying 10 trucks carried Iraqi and foreign fighters into Iraq.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been waiting for civilians to leave the village of Baghuz before launching an offensive to liberate the area.
“The most hardened of ISIS fighters still remain,” the global coalition tweeted Wednesday, using an acronym for the terror group, adding that the U.S.-backed forces “continue to receive civilians attempting to escape to safety.”
The coalition statement came hours after the SDF broke a stalemate with IS fighters still holed-up in 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 French news agency Agence France-Presse.
Witnesses said they saw a convoy of about 10 trucks leave Islamic State’s last enclave, a small 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 left 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.
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 such as Britain, France and Germany repatriate any citizens who joined IS and prosecute them. But many of the countries have pushed back.
Britain Tuesday announced 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’ 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.