Efforts aimed at evacuating civilians from IS area in Syria

Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press
This photo released Feb. 19, 2019, by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows Syrian White Helmet civil defense workers carrying an injured man who was wounded by a shell from Syrian forces, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, north Syria.

Al-Omar Oil Field Base, Syria – A spokesman for a U.S.-backed Syrian force fighting the Islamic State said Tuesday a military operation aimed at ousting the extremists from their last remaining area in eastern Syria will commence after separating or evacuating civilians holed up with them.

Mustafa Bali said if the remaining militants estimated to be around 300 surrendered, there would be no need for a fight.

The comments came as a Kurdish official and a Syria war monitor said that dozens of trucks arrived at the outskirts of the tiny enclave held by IS to bring out civilians remaining inside, believed to be in the hundreds.

“We are working on either separating the civilians or evacuating them and raiding the place,” Bali said.

Adnan Afrin, a commander with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, said a number of civilians and some fighters have turned themselves in and that the trucks went to the corridor to get them. He reported some clashes on the other side of the enclave between IS militants who don’t want to surrender and SDF fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, also reported that some 50 trucks belonging to the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS arrived at the outskirts of the area.

A U.N. official said Tuesday she is concerned about the condition of the some 200 families trapped in the last remaining area held by IS. In a statement issued in Geneva, Michel Bachelet, the U.N.’s human rights chief, said the extremists are actively preventing civilians, including women and children, from leaving the area near the border with Iraq.

The International Rescue Committee said Monday that more than 60 people have died in recent weeks after making their way out of the tiny area controlled by IS, most of them from exhaustion and malnutrition. They either died along the way or soon after arriving at a massive camp in northern Syria that is hosting those fleeing and evacuating the area in eastern Deir el-Zour province.

In Idlib, government forces shelled a bakery killing at least four people, including children, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, the Observatory said. The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense said the shelling killed five people including two children and also wounded five others. It said the bakery is out of service.

Near the border with Jordan, in the country’s south, the Syrian government opened Tuesday two humanitarian passages with the assistance of Russian troops for people in a tent settlement who want to move to other parts of the country, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

The Rukban camp is home to some 40,000 displaced people who suffer from lack of food and medical supplies. It was not immediately clear if people started leaving.

Last week, the U.N. and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered badly needed humanitarian assistance as Russia offered to help relocate those willing to move to government-held areas in Syria.

Jordan closed the border over security concerns and the Syrian government and its ally Russia have blamed U.S. troops stationed nearby for failing to provide security for aid shipments – allegations denied by the Americans.


Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.