A deadly car bombing claimed by the Islamic State group hit US-backed forces in eastern Syria as they tried to negotiate the release of civilians trapped in the jihadists’ last sliver of territory.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are working towards evacuating civilians remaining in the holdout, so they can finish off the dying IS ‘caliphate’ either through an assault or a surrender deal.
The jihadists overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but several offensive have retaken all but half a square kilometre of their territory in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting IS said international forces “continue to support the SDF as they negotiate having innocent civilians released” and their captured fighters returned.
As the SDF pressed the last IS diehards, a car bomb killed 14 oil workers and six of the Kurdish-led alliance’s conscripts near the Omar oil field that it uses as its main base in the region, the US-backed group and a monitor said.
IS claimed responsibility for the blast on Telegram, saying its fighters had planted and detonated the explosive-laden car.
SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said the explosion in the village of Shheel, some 100 kilometres north of Baghouz, was another example of IS cells attacking its fighters behind the front line.
“This is what we’ve been talking about in the past about sleeper cells trying to impede our progress in Baghouz,” he said.
A day after hundreds of people were evacuated from the last IS remnant, more than 50 trucks returned near empty from Baghouz to SDF territory, an AFP correspondent said.
“We couldn’t enter Baghouz,” said a man who had accompanied the convoy.
“We got to an SDF point and we found around 15 people – women and children including a French woman and an Egyptian woman. We took them,” he said.
“The fighters asked us to go back tomorrow at 8am.”
Thousands of people have escaped IS territory in recent weeks, but the flow slowed to a trickle at the weekend, before Wednesday’s first batch of evacuees.
Paul Bradley, from the Free Burma Rangers volunteer group, said people fleeing painted a grim picture of life inside.
“They showed us this bread that’s basically mashed up wheat with water burnt on both sides, US$16 a kilo,” he said.
SDF spokesman Afrin said most of those trucked out on Wednesday were civilians, but they also included IS fighters.
On Thursday, the AFP reporter saw hundreds of people waiting in a screening area where the SDF have been questioning new arrivals in recent weeks, to separate out suspected jihadists from the civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Wednesday that negotiations were being held “for the surrender of the last IS fighters”.
It said there were ‘reports of a deal’ but the details were unclear.
At the height of its rule, IS imposed its brutal ideology on a territory roughly the size of the United Kingdom, attracting thousands of supporters from abroad.
But the jihadists have since lost almost all their territory, and hundreds of foreigners suspected of being IS fighters, as well as related women and children, are being held by the SDF.