Angry crowds evacuating from the last shred of territory held by Islamic State militants in Syria praised the extremist group Wednesday and chanted "Islamic State will remain," in a menacing show of support, even as defeat loomed.
There were no signs of combat as calm prevailed for a third day to allow for evacuations from the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz. Associated Press journalists positioned across from the ISIS's riverside pocket of land saw lines of pickup trucks, motorcycles and people walking on foot, apparently a group of evacuees.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is spearheading the fight against ISIS in Syria, has been surprised by the large number of civilians — family members of ISIS fighters in the thousands — who have been streaming out of the tiny enclave. In recent weeks, the Kurdish-led SDF has been alternately applying military force to put pressure on militants who refuse to surrender and holding fire long enough to allow for evacuations and surrender.
Thousands of people have trickled out of Baghouz in the last few days. The latest wave of evacuations brings ISIS a step closer to defeat by the Kurdish-led SDF. That would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to defeat the group's so-called "caliphate" that once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq. The fight against ISIS has taken place amid Syria's nearly 8-year-old civil war.
On Wednesday, hundreds of evacuees walked through the dusty desert plateau to get on trucks to carry them to displaced persons camps miles away. Meanwhile, lines of men walked guided by their enemy, the SDF, to another corner of the plateau to be screened and searched by members of the U.S-led coalition.
As defeat neared, the anger of defiant supporters among the evacuees was palpable.
Women seen at a reception area set up in the desert, where they were screened by SDF officials, were rowdy and aggressive. They angrily denounced journalists, and praised ISIS. Engulfed in conservative black robes with a black face covers, they pointed their fingers at the sky and screamed: "Islamic State will stay, God is great, God is great, Islamic State will stay!" Two women took off their shoes and raised them in the direction of journalists. "Take a picture of the shoe, the shoes are better than you," one said. Children joined, raising their fingers in the air.
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A man who refused to give his name screamed at journalists filming the evacuees praying, and decried their being depicted as terrorists. "We only implemented God's laws," he shouted, covering half his face.
Abu Sham, a member of the ISIS religious police who exited Baghouz on Tuesday, said fighters who remained inside are willing to die for the group.
"The Islamic State is not finished," the 39-year old said, using a moniker that means the father of Syria. "I didn't lose hope."
A 30-year-old Iraqi woman said her 1-month-old baby, who was sick, died overnight in the reception area from the cold.
"I didn't want to leave except to treat her," said the woman who identified herself as Um Fatima. She cursed the SDF and said: "The Islamic state will remain and expand, God willing," and walked away. A group of men were seated on the ground, under the watchful eye of SDF fighters, many of them covering their faces with checkered scarves.
Many among those leaving Wednesday appeared to be wives and children of ISIS militants. But among those who emerged were 13 Yazidi children from Iraq, looking dusty and dirty and in a state of shock. At least 75 men also came out, going straight to the interrogation area.
After sundown, new trucks carrying more evacuees arrived.
The scenes of surrender, humiliation and anger highlighted the desperation of the group as their last bastion teeters on the edge of collapse.
The SDF announced a military operation to liberate Baghouz in September, but has held off on a full blown assault after it became apparent that a huge number of civilians were still inside. Over the last three weeks, more than 10,000 people, many of them exhausted and wounded IS followers, have evacuated.
The militants — many of them foreigners, including Iraqis and Central Asians along with some Syrian fighters — are now fighting their final battle, holed up in tunnels and caves inside Baghouz. An SDF commander said Wednesday when the last batch of civilians and evacuees leave, the group will bomb the remaining hardcore militants who have vowed to die in Baghouz.
The commander said those fighters are ready to blow themselves up. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Another SDF military commander said at least 400 ISIS fighters were caught trying to leave Tuesday. He said the men were working with a smuggling ring to get away from SDF areas. He also spoke on condition of anonymity.
After days without fighting, the SDF and the coalition launched an intense assault Friday that targeted an ammunition warehouse in the ISIS-held area and advanced forces inside, tightening the noose on the militants.
Evacuees said the strikes ignited a fire that burned part of the tent encampment where thousands of family members and civilians had been placed. The fire forced many people to run toward the nearby Euphrates River, where some dug holes on the waterfront to seek refuge, said Abu Mariam, an evacuee who lost his wife and two children in the fire.
Loubna, a 30-year-old woman from the Syrian town of al-Bab, said there were many bodies on the streets in the ISIS-held area, burned by the fire. The fire was still smoldering days later.
Loubna said she opted to leave but her husband, a Syrian, decided to stay. He will fight till the end, she said, adding he is prepared to blow himself up. "They have their planes. We have God's help," she said. Loubna said didn't think she would see her husband again, and will raise her five kids to become jihadists.