World News

Thousands of civilians are still living under ISIS control, SDF commander says

Posted February 22, 2019 12:03 p.m. EST

— Thousands of civilians remain inside ISIS's last enclave in Syria, a commander with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Friday.

The commander, who is currently inside the small town of Baghouz Al-Fawqani in the country's east, told CNN a large number of civilians are still in the area under ISIS control. He added that civilians are leaving the ISIS camp through tunnels and buildings.

"We are getting messages from the civilians coming out that many of the ISIS fighters want to surrender and as many as 200 to 300 ISIS fighters don't want to surrender and want to fight till the end," the commander told CNN's Ben Wedeman.

SDF was expecting the evacuation of all civilians to be completed by Thursday, but was surprised with how many remained inside. The SDF Commander told CNN he thinks it will take another four to five days until all civilians are completely out of the pocket of land.

The SDF launched an offensive nearly two weeks ago to oust ISIS from its last stronghold in Baghouz Al-Fawqani.

SDF fighters have the terror group's final foothold surrounded but have slowed their advance to avoid harming thousands of civilians who are being held by ISIS as human shields, Commander Chia Kobani, head of operations for the SDF, told a press briefing last week.

As of Friday, SDF commanders estimate ISIS still controls an area of half a square kilometer in Syria. At its height, it controlled an area the size of Great Britain and ruled over 10 million people.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern on Friday for the civilians stuck in the ISIS holdout. "Civilians leaving (Baghouz) is a relief but it should not obscure the fact that this battle appears to have been waged without sufficient consideration to their well-being," Nadim Houry, director of terrorism and counter-terrorism at HRW, said in a statement.

"Just because they may be families of ISIS members or sympathized with them does not take away their protected status."

The rights group interviewed 20 people who escaped the ISIS camp in recent weeks and described the area being hammered by shells and being subject to air strikes -- resulting in the destruction of the town.

They described hard conditions in the past months, of dwindling food supplies and aid forcing them "to eat grass and weeds to survive, even as they moved multiple times to escape relentless attacks," HRW wrote.

"Most witnesses said that it was very dangerous to try to escape ISIS-controlled areas because the group punished people who tried to flee and had mined the roads. They said that smugglers were charging up to $400 per person, which most of them no longer had," HRW said.