WASHINGTON - Hundreds of women and children boarded trucks and evacuated the final piece of land still held by Islamic State Monday, prolonging the more than week-long exodus and delaying the U.S.-led coalition's final assault on the last shred of the terror group's self-declared caliphate.
Observers on the ground outside the village of Baghuz said the latest evacuation included a convoy of about 25 vehicles carrying mostly family members of IS fighters to the nearby al-Hol camp for displaced persons in northeastern Syria.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of about 1,400 people have now left Baghuz in the past 24 hours, including dozens of suspected IS fighters.
The number of civilians, both IS family members as well as prisoners and slaves, still holed-up in a tiny pocket of territory has shocked the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been leading the ground campaign against the terror group.
Just a week ago, SDF commanders estimated there were maybe 1,000 civilians still in the village along with about 300 of the "most-hardened" IS fighters.
But the SDF says about 6,000 civilians have streamed out of the IS tent city in just the past several days. And commanders now worry that thousands more may still be hidden in a complex network of tunnels and caves beneath the village, which may also hold an unknown number of IS fighters.
"It is too hard to get a realistic total when the enemy is using tunnels and other hideouts," coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told VOA Monday.
"Right now, the safety of the civilians in the Baghuz area is paramount and the SDF is working this complex issue very well and ensuring ISIS fighters do not get through the screening process," he added, using an acronym for the terror group.
SDF commanders have said repeatedly they intend to wait until all civilians are evacuated from Baghuz before they launch a final assault.
Even coalition airstrikes in the area have focused mostly on pushing back IS fighters when they have blocked escape routes in an effort to prevent the civilians from leaving.
In the meantime, SDF officials have been voicing growing concern over the number of civilians and fighters now in their custody.
"The burden which is already too heavy for us 2 handle is getting even heavier," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted on Saturday.
As thousands of foreigners flee Daesh’s crumbling caliphate, the burden which is already too heavy for us 2 handle is getting even heavier. This will remain as the biggest challenge awaiting us unless governments take action and fulfill their responsibilities for THEIR CITIZENS. pic.twitter.com/c5Yc9GWECk— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) February 23, 2019
"This will remain as the biggest challenge awaiting us unless governments take action and fulfill their responsibilities for THEIR CITIZENS," he added.
U.S. and coalition officials have said there are at least 800 IS foreign fighters currently in SDF custody, though some SDF estimates put the number at more than twice that.
And while U.S. officials have long been pushing for countries of origin to take back their own foreign fighters and prosecute them, many nations have been reluctant to do so.
But there are indications some countries are finding other solutions.
On Monday, Iraq confirmed it has taken custody of 13 IS fighters from the SDF.
"They are accused of having commanded operations against Iraqis and Iraqi installations in Iraq, and they will be tried according to Iraqi law,"
Iraqi President Barham Salih said during a visit to Paris, suggesting his country might be willing to prosecute other foreign fighters as well.
"We are acting within the confines of international law on this matter," Salih added speaking alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.
Other Iraqi officials had previously said all 13 fighters were of French origin.
The Pentagon Monday told VOA that despite the apparent agreement, the best way to mitigate any future threat is for countries of origin to repatriate and prosecute their own foreign fighters themselves.
Some information in this report is from Reuters.