ISIS fighters and families leave Syria in surrender deal

Foreigners and Iraqis among prisoners handed over by Syrian forces, local official says

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gives bread to children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Ten trucks carrying Iraqi and foreign ISIS fighters and their families entered Iraq on Thursday as part of a prisoner handover by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the Iraqi army, a local mayor said.

"The majority of them are Iraqis and the convoy was under maximum security protection headed to the Jazeera and Badiya military headquarters," the mayor of the Iraqi border town of Al Qaim, Ahmed Al Mahallawi, told Reuters.

Both military bases are in Iraq's western Anbar province that borders Syria.

Anbar, with its vast desert landscape and proximity to Syria, once served as an easy corridor for the extremists to journey between Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

The 150 members of the group were the first batch of several to come, the Associated Press reported, citing an Iraqi security official who spoke on condition of anonymity. An SDF spokesman, however, denied the claim.

According to the official, the US-backed SDF are holding more than 20,000 Iraqis suspected of ISIS membership.

The handover took place as the SDF prepared to evacuate the last civilians trapped inside a small ISIS enclave in eastern Syria.

US-backed fighters will then engage the remaining ISIS members, who have entrenched themselves inside a sliver of land on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told Reuters.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred fighters – believed mostly to be foreign – are still inside a small tent city on the outskirts of Baghouz.

The encampment is completely surrounded by the SDF.

Mr Bali did not say how much more time was needed to finish off the remaining ISIS militants, or give a fresh estimate of how many fighters remained.

Meanwhile a car bomb on Thursday killed 20 people including 14 oil workers near a base used by SDF forces, a war monitor said.

"The car bomb was detonated remotely in the village of Shheel" close to an oil field acting as a SDF base, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Six SDF conscripts were also killed as they escorted the workers in vehicles from the Omar oil field, it said.

US Army General Jospeh Votel, head of Central Command, had earlier visited American military members deployed in support of the SDF, aiding them in clearing out the last pockets of ISIS resistance and prevent them from crossing into Iraq.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there have been negotiations for the surrender of the remaining fighters.

The village of Baghouz on the Iraqi border is where ISIS holds its last scrap of territory in the Euphrates valley region that became its final major stronghold in Iraq and Syria after a series of defeats in 2017.