A convoy of tattered trucks evacuated dozens of people from a patch of open ground in Syria's Baghouz on Wednesday, in what could be one of the final steps before launching the operation to capture the last territory controlled by ISIS.
As the last sliver of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi's vision nears its finale, images of alleged ISIS fighters fleeing on the convoys alongside women and children have surfaced. In an image published by AFP, five men caked in dust, at least one of them wielding a gun, sit idly on the back of a truck heading away from the encircled fields, their faces hidden behind chequered scarves.
"We are aware of open source reports of ISIS fighters reportedly surrendering in the MERV [Middle Euphrates River Valley]," the anti-ISIS coalition tweeted on Wednesday night. We cannot independently verify these reports. However, the SDF continue to receive civilians attempting to escape to safety and the most hardened ISIS fighters still remain in Baghouz."
The operation is being overseen by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have slowed their advance in recent days to protect the estimated 200 civilians who were trapped alongside the fighters ahead of a final push. Armed vehicles brandishing the yellow flag of the Kurdish YPG – a component of the SDF – and fighters wearing balaklavas, ushered the convoy to safety through a dusty country road.
At least 15 trucks were seen leaving the area but some civilians remain inside, the SDF spokesman told AFP.
"After many days of trying, we were able to evacuate the first batch today," said Mustefa Bali, adding that the exact number of people in the convoy could only be determined at the SDF screening site, several hours east of Baghouz. "We don't know if ISIS fighters are among them, we will know at the screening point," he said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a deal appeared to have been reached with the militant holdouts. "There have been negotiations for the surrender of the last ISIS fighters," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said. The US-backed coalition has yet to confirm this.
Taking back Baghouz could see the brutal eight-year-old war enter a new phase. But while the fall of the extremists' territory brings some form of hope to Syria's weary civilians, the imminent withdrawal of US troops could lead to a troubling security vacuum in the volatile country. Some ISIS fighters are still hiding out in the central Syrian desert and have staged guerrilla attacks both in Iraq and Syria.
Seven Iraqis are thought to have been killed by ISIS in the deserted area between the provinces of Najaf and Anbar last weekend. Officials say the group is trying to re-assert its presence.
Bracing for the worst, the SDF on Monday called for 1,000-1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to ensure that ISIS' territorial defeat is lasting. The head of US army Central Command, Gen Joseph Votel, said he was still carrying out President Donald Trump's withdrawal order.
Among the many civilians who have left Baghouz in recent days are families of Islamic State fighters, including some foreigners who went to Iraq and Syria to join its group.
The implosion of the militant's area of control, which once spanned swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, has left Western nations grappling with how to handle citizens who left to join ISIS. The UK has been grappling with what to do about British citizen Shamima Begum, a London teenager who travelled to Syria to join ISIS and who is likely to see her citizenship revoked.