Four Iraqi boys abducted by ISIS freed as civilians pour out of Baghouz

The four boys were taken in Tal Afar in 2014 as US-backed Syrian forces pause to allow civilians to leave last ISIS-held territory

US-backed Syrian forces on Wednesday freed four children abducted by ISIS in 2014 from the Iraqi Turkmen town of Tal Afar, a Kurdish spokesman said.

The boys were found by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) amidst the hundreds of people making their way out of the last ISIS pocket in eastern Syria.

The Arab-Kurdish militia has paused the final assault to allow what it says is an unexpectedly large number of civilians to leave after it was thought all non-combatants had already left by last Friday.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali sent an appeal on Twitter asking for help to repatriate the children to Iraq and their families.

Mr Bali posted footage on his account of the four Iraqi boys caked in dust and wrapped in dirty sweaters. One by one, the children can be heard stating their names and their hometown.

"I was four years [when ISIS kidnapped me]," Mehdi Mohammed says to the camera.

The boys' names suggest they are Shiite – a strand of Islam whose followers ISIS considered infidels.

Tal Afar, in Nineveh province, was captured by the group on June 16 2014, just six days after the fall of Mosul. It was liberated by Iraqi forces in 2017. During this time the city housed a number of different prisons where Yazidi women and their children were held.

Since the SDF announced last month it was launching a final assault on Baghouz, ISIS fighters, family members, captives and local villagers have poured from the tiny enclave. But not all of them made it to the camps. Four hundred ISIS members were captured by the SDF as they tried to slip out of the enclave, a senior officer on Wednesday told AFP. The SDF intercepted a large group trying to escape from the village.

Their breakout was organised by a network that aimed to spirit them to remote regions but they were on foot. The group included Syrians as well as fighters from several other nationalities, AFP said.

While some escaped, others surrendered. Five hundred members of the group turned themselves in to the SDF on Tuesday alone, said Mr Bali.

Although some 3,500 people have been evacuated from Baghouz on Tuesday, including five captured SDF fighters, the fate of hostages like 64-year-old Father Paolo Dall'Oglio and Lebanese journalist Samir Kassab remains unknown.

Among them could be John Cantlie, a British journalist caught by ISIS more than six years ago. Security minister, Ben Wallace, told journalists on Tuesday that British intelligence believes Mr Cantlie is still alive.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, at least 6,000 of the 58,000 people who left ISIS' last bastions since December were extremists who were subsequently detained. Among them is 42-year-old Mark Taylor, a Kiwi militant who joined the group four years ago and is now being held in a Kurdish prison in northern Syria. Taylor is just one of many foreigners who joined ISIS – they have since become a headache for their respective governments.

Some civilians surrendered peacefully while others could be heard praising the extremist group and chanted "Islamic State will remain," underscoring the defiance of ISIS fighters and their supporters even as their defeat looms. Some have been found to be carrying explosives, weapons, documents or electronics out of the pocket.

On Tuesday, the wife of French fighter Jean-Michel Clain confirmed her husband had been killed in Baghouz, days after his brother Fabien.

The brothers were featured in a video claiming responsibility for a 2015 shooting rampage in the streets of Paris that remains France's deadliest ever terrorist attack.

Clain's widow Dorothee Maquere fled the enclave with her five children and told AFP she did not want to return to France.

"I want to be left alone after everything I've been through... someplace where I can live, where I won't be bothered, where I can live my life," she said.

Images shared on social media show queues of bedraggled civilians and fighters being led by male and female members of the SDF through dusty terrain. Most will end up in Al Hol camp, where more than 50,000 evacuees are being held in cramped and unsanitary facilities, waiting to know their fate.

The loss of Baghouz would signal the end of territorial control for ISIS east of the Euphrates but the organisation remains a potent threat and can carry out attacks from hideouts in desert regions in both Syria and Iraq.

Published: March 6, 2019 09:28 PM


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