QAMISHLI, SYRIA (REUTERS) - Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in eastern Syria are pinned down in a final tiny pocket with their wives and children, forcing a US-backed militia to slow its advance to protect civilians, the militia said on Tuesday (Jan 29).
An aid agency said separately that 10,000 civilians had fled the enclave since last week and were arriving hungry and desperate at a camp.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by 2,000 US troops and air support, are preparing for a final showdown with ISIS in eastern Syria after helping to drive the fighters from the towns and cities that once formed the group's self-proclaimed caliphate.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said ISIS fighters were now confined to a pocket of just 5 to 6 sq km by the Euphrates River. The presence of their wives and children meant the US-backed militia could not launch an all-out storm of it, and was using slower, more precise tactics instead.
"There are thousands of Daesh families there. They are civilians at the end of the day," Bali told Reuters, using an acronym for ISIS. "We cannot storm the area or put any child's life in danger."
The SDF had refused an offer from the militants via mediators to surrender the territory in return for safe passage out, Bali said.
Clashes had slowed because of the presence of the civilians, and "precise operations" were taking more time.
"Calm prevails on the front lines but there's a state of caution and waiting."
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity said it was helping tend to a sudden influx of more than 10,000 people, almost all women, children and elderly, who had arrived at a camp in north-east Syria since last week.
Most were exhausted, extremely hungry, and thirsty as they fled ISIS territory, the global aid agency said. Many arrived barefoot. The United Nations confirmed that 12 young children had died after reaching the al-Hol camp or on the dangerous journey there, the IRC added on Tuesday.
The SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has seized much of north and east Syria with US help. It has been battling ISIS remnants near the Iraqi border for months.
Last month, US President Donald Trump declared that ISIS had been defeated and announced the abrupt withdrawal of the US troops, over the objections of top advisers including Defence Secretary James Mattis, who quit in protest.
The SDF vowed to escalate its operations against ISIS this month after a bomb attack killed several people including two US soldiers in northern Syria. SDF officials have warned of an ISIS revival if Washington withdraws.
Kurdish leaders also fear a US pullout would give Turkey, which sees the YPG as a threat on its border, the chance to mount a new assault. Washington has since said it will make sure its allies are protected when it leaves.