600 people leave in first evacuation from ISIS holdout in eastern Syria

A US army vehicle supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in Hajin, Eastern Syria. According to the UN, an estimated 2,000 civilians remain trapped in the area around the town of Hajin. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (AFP) - More than 600 people had been evacuated from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group's remaining holdout in eastern Syria, a monitor said, as United States-backed fighters prepare for a final assault on the area.

More than 600 people, mainly women and children, were evacuated on 25 buses sent by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that several dozen Islamist fighters were among those evacuated to areas held by the Kurdish-Arab alliance.

In September, the SDF, backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition, launched an offensive to oust ISIS from the rump of the once-sprawling "caliphate" it proclaimed in 2014.

Mr Abdel Rahman said some 16,000 people, including 760 ISIS fighters, had fled the area since the start of December.

But "this is the first time that buses have been provided by the SDF and coalition", he said, suggesting that a potential deal had been struck between the warring sides.

The United Nations said last Friday that overall, some 25,000 people had fled the violence over the last six months as the die-hard extremists battled to defend their dwindling bastions.

An estimated 2,000 civilians remain trapped in the area around the town of Hajin, the UN said.

The US-led coalition on Saturday fired more than 20 missiles against Islamist positions, the Observatory said.

The monitor said some 300 SDF combatants had deployed near the village of Sousa in preparations for a final assault.

The fight to eliminate the remaining pockets of ISIS has been shaken by US President Donald Trump's shock December announcement that he is withdrawing US troops from Syria.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday sought to reassure Washington's Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS, who fear the departure of American troops would allow Turkey to attack them.

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