SDF blame ISIS use of human shields for Baghouz standoff dragging on

Over 60,000 people have fled from the last ISIS pocket in Syria since January

People walk inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group's last pocket of territory in Syria, Sunday, March 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said on Sunday that the use of “human shields” by ISIS was delaying a final victory over the last militant-held pocket in Syria.

The SDF said in a statement that over 60,000 people had fled the last ISIS-held territory around the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria since a final assault to capture it began on January 9, with roughly half of those identified as ISIS fighters and their families.

“Our forces have been delayed by thousands of civilians who ISIS used as human shields,” the group said in a statement.

The military campaign to capture Baghouz has resulted in the death of 1,306 “terrorists” with many more injured, the SDF said, while 82 SDF fighters have been killed and 61 injured.

Some 5,000 militants had surrendered since the Kurdish-led group attacked the encircled farming village, which lies on a bend of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border. Another 520 militants were captured by the SDF in special operations while they were trying to break the cordon to escape.

A high proportion of foreign ISIS members have been surrendering from Baghouz, where they have gradually concentrated over the past four years as the extremist group lost territory that once covered roughly a third of Iraq and Syria.

Most of those surrendering have been taken to Al Hawl camp in Hassakeh province, which has received 57,000 mostly women and children since December, swelling the facility’s population to over 67,000. Many of those fleeing Baghouz are in poor health and with conditions in the camp dire, the International Rescue Committee has counted over 120 deaths, overwhelmingly of children, en route to the camp or soon after arrival.

There is a shortage of 6,000 tents to offer sufficient shelter to all who are now at the camp, the IRC’s Paul Donohoe said. Camp workers warn of the risk of disease spreading and say there is insufficient food and medicine.