Hundreds of civilians still living in Islamic State’s final enclave have emerged and are being used as human shields – forcing US-backed troops to delay capturing the village.
A commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said about 1,000 civilians, including women and children, have been brought up from underground tunnels in the past three days to make the SDF and the US-led coalition aware of their presence.
Adnan Afrin said the militants are hiding among the civilians and using them as human shields.
The Kurdish-led SDF and the coalition launched the offensive to liberate Baghuz a week ago, after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them foreign wives of IS militants, were evacuated through a corridor from the area near the Iraq border.
Among them was British schoolgirl Shamima Begum, who this week revealed she is nine months pregnant and wants to return to the UK after four years – but does not regret joining the terrorist group.
Some civilians were left behind in the town and although they are likely to be the families of IS militants, their discovery has caused problems for the coalition forces, Mr Afrin said.
“This was a surprise. We did not imagine there would be this number of civilians left,” he said.
“We do not want to cause a massacre against civilians in the last (IS) pocket.”
A series of air strikes and shelling last week was thought to signal the end of the fight against IS in its final remaining enclave in Syria.
It is not clear whether IS is holding any civilian prisoners, beyond their own families, in Baghuz.
“We aim to save any prisoners, but we have no information about them. They can be among the civilians, or in underground prisons, we have no information,” said Mr Afrin.
IS militants are desperately trying to cling onto their last stronghold, with the discovery of more civilians delaying the SDF’s victory against the group after four violent years.
US-backed forces are carrying out detailed operations targeting IS outposts in and around Baghuz and are working to clear surrounding villages of remaining fighters, SDF officials said.
IS’ power has diminished dramatically in recent months, with the Islamist group covering nearly a third of Iraq and Syria at the height of its power in 2014.
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