Hundreds leave ISIS pocket of Baghouz in mass surrender

The final offensive was paused to minimise civilian casualties

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About 500 people including 150 ISIS fighters left its last pocket of territory on Monday as US-backed Syrian forces edged closer to liberating every inch of the group’s “caliphate”.

The Syrian Democratic Forces surrounded ISIS but the final offensive was paused in Baghouz late on Sunday after it was found that more civilians were trapped in the eastern  enclave.

"We're slowing down the offensive in Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh," spokesman Mustafa Bali said.

"In order not to harm them, we are advancing slowly but we assert that the battle of Baghouz will end in a short period of time."

Dozens of lorries similar to those that moved people from Baghouz in recent weeks headed back there on Monday.

An unknown number of ISIS fighters remained inside the collection of hamlets, an SDF source told Reuters on Monday night.

Thousands of civilians and fighters have streamed out of the area in recent weeks as the final showdown loomed amid walls of fire and plumes of black smoke.

Civilians handing themselves in were taken to camps away from the frontlines to be held and screened. The fighters were taken to Kurdish-run prisons in northern Syria.

With many already having left the ISIS territory, the SDF warned that those remaining would be the core militants and their families.

The Friday offensive began with a heavy wave of artillery and air strikes on the small patch of largely open ground on a palm-lined bend of the Euphrates River.

Among those who handed themselves in were bedraggled, often malnourished fighters, many of whom had missing limbs or new wounds.

Inside the about 700 metre square area, the remaining fighters repelled the advance with suicide car bombs, sniping, tunnels, trenches and threats against civilians.

Between Saturday and Sunday several car bombs were destroyed by US air strikes, preventing an attack on the Arab-Kurdish militia.

These were just a handful amid a reported 1,220 air and artillery strikes in January, a monitor in London said .

That was an increase of 281 since December 2018 and the highest number of strikes in any given month since September 2017.

Despite US President Donald Trump's announcement in December that ISIS in Syria was defeated and that US troops would soon leave, in January there was a 30 per cent rise in air and artillery strikes, a report by Airwars said on Monday.

The report estimates that up to 118 civilians were killed by coalition fire in the first month of 2019, with all fire power concentrated on a few towns in eastern Syria where ISIS fighters and civilians remained.

US-led coalition air power has been key in assisting the SDF in its ground incursion and defeat of ISIS.

But in what Airwars has called a "worrying development", the coalition has abandoned its 52-month record of stating where and when its actions take place in Iraq and Syria.

For years civilians have been living among ISIS fighters, and are now also fleeing with them, with some being caught in the violence. Days later, another report claimed, a civilian home was struck by coalition air strikes in eastern Syria, killing 10.

Coalition strikes on January 3 that hit residential areas killed 13 civilians, including up to five children and three women, reports said.

Only the head of the family and a daughter survived the attack.

In Iraq, US-led coalition strikes also increased, for the first time in six months with 22 air strikes in January.

In addition to coalition strikes, Syrians have also contended with bombings by Russian jets. For four months, Airwars tracked no allegations against the Russian air force in Syria up to January.

The first month of 2019 saw a significant rise in casualties said to involve Russian warplanes.

Most of the 13 incidents tracked by the monitoring group were in the Syrian provinces of Idlib and Hama.