Dozens of trucks carrying men, women and children left the last piece of the Islamic State terror group’s caliphate Friday, while bursts of gunfire echoed across the desert, and the sound of coalition planes and drones screamed overhead.
Observers and monitors said anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people made it out in the latest stage of the days-long evacuation of civilians from the several hundred square meter patch of land in the eastern Syrian village of Baghuz.
Officials with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces warned, though, that as many as another 6,000 people are still waiting to leave, holding up for now in a collection of tents, broken-down buildings and a system of tunnels that extend below the village.
Efforts to evacuate civilians and clear the way for a final assault against an estimated 200 to 300 IS fighters willing to fight to the death has been complicated as negotiations with the fighters have stalled repeatedly.
In many cases, the SDF has called in coalition airstrikes to push back IS fighters who moved to block civilians from leaving.
Friday’s efforts to get civilians out of Baghuz appeared to be no different, with reports of sporadic clashes between the SDF and IS fighters.
“For this evacuation to be a success, there [needs to be] military action,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told the Associated Press.
On Thursday, hundreds of civilians were forced to flee the IS enclave in Baghuz by foot, after IS fighters blocked the route to trucks provided by the coalition.
“Coalition warplanes hit several targets on the western front,” said Adnan Afrin, a commander with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told VOA. “This created mayhem among the [IS] terrorists and gave an opportunity to some civilians in their captivity to flee.”
SDF officials say once all remaining civilians have been evacuated, they intend to clear Baghuz of IS for good.
They say the IS fighters are running low on supplies such as ammunition and medicine, but admit it may be several days before they can move in.
"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."
Operations to rescue civilians are likely to continue in coming days since thousands remain trapped and SDF can’t launch the last offensive with them remaining in the camp.— zana amedi (@zana_med) February 20, 2019
Complicating efforts, SDF officials and observers on the ground say IS fighters, either from Baghuz or from sleeper cells located nearby, have launched a series of counterattacks on the outskirts of Baghuz and in nearby areas.
Kurdish officials, as well as the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Thursday blamed the terror group for a suicide bombing at the al-Omar oil field, in the nearby town of Al-Sahil.
SOHR monitors on the ground said the blast targeted a convoy or workers. They said at least 20 people were killed, including six members of the SDF.
Despite such setbacks, Kurdish forces say they expect total defeat of IS in Syria by the end of the week.
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 800 to 1,000 foreign fighters in custody.
There are also concerns that once Baghuz is liberated, IS still has the capacity to wage an insurgency in both Syria and Iraq.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials warn up to 30,000 IS fighters are still spread across the two countries.
VOA Extremism Watch Desk's Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.