OMAR OIL FIELD: US-backed fighters trucked out civilians from the last speck of the Islamic State group's dying "caliphate" in Syria on Friday (Feb 22), eager to press on with the dragging battle to crush the militants.
More than four years after IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, and declared a "caliphate", they have lost all of it but a tiny patch in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
Almost 30 trucks carrying men, women and children left the enclave on Friday, AFP correspondents at a position of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces outside the village reported.
Most were women and children, their clothes caked in dust, but the passengers also included men with their faces wrapped in chequered scarves.
Women clung to the railings of the trucks, while the hair of younger girls flew in the wind, as they left enclave in the second such large-scale evacuation in three days.
Earlier on Friday, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said he hoped civilian evacuations could be completed by Saturday.
Fellow SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said once the evacuations had ended, his forces would expel the last militants from the less than half a square kilometre (a fifth of a square mile) they still hold.
"When the civilians leave, we will see how many civilians and IS fighters remain inside and what they want to do," he said. "They will be faced with a choice: war or surrender."
The SDF evacuated 3,000 people from the IS pocket on Wednesday - mostly women and children - but trucks left near empty on Thursday.
'MANY FRENCH WOMEN'
Bali said that screening had determined that most of those evacuated on Wednesday were foreigners.
"The majority are Iraqi and from countries of the former Soviet Union, but there are also Europeans among them," he said.
David Eubank, the leader of the Free Burma Rangers volunteer aid group, said the women and children trucked out were "very hungry and dirty".
They included "many French women", as well as others from Australia, Austria, Germany and Russia, and one woman from Britain, he told AFP.
Human Rights Watch urged the SDF and the US-led coalition supporting it to make protecting civilians a priority.
"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 wellbeing," the New York-based watchdog's counterterrosim director, Nadim Houry said.
"Just because they may be families of ISIS members or sympathised with them does not take away their protected status," he said, using an alternative acronym for IS.
Beyond Baghouz, IS retains a presence in the vast, virtually unpopulated Syrian Desert and sleeper cells elsewhere, and continues to claim deadly attacks inside SDF-held territory.
On Thursday, they detonated a car bomb that killed 20 people - mostly oil workers - near Omar oil field, the main base for the SDF operation in Baghouz.
The battle for the village is now the only live front in Syria's complex civil, which has killed 360,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.
Any SDF victory in Baghouz would accelerate an expected withdrawal of US troops from Syria announced in December by US President Donald Trump.
Kurdish forces, who have spearheaded the US-backed fight against IS in Syria, have expressed fear that a full pullout would leave them exposed to a long threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey.
But the White House said Thursday the US military will keep around 200 troops in Syria after the withdrawal.
"A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
At the height of its rule, IS imposed its brutal ideology on an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, attracting thousands of supporters from abroad.
But some of those foreigners have been killed, while the SDF holds hundreds more.
Syria's Kurds have long requested that their home countries take them back, but foreign governments have been reluctant.
On Thursday, the father of an Alabama woman who joined IS in Syria sued to bring her home after the Trump administration declared she was not a US citizen.
Hoda Muthana, 24, says that she regrets joining the extremists and is willing to face prosecution in the United States.
A London teenager, meanwhile, faced being left stateless after Britain revoked her citizenship and authorities in Bangladesh, where her parents were born, said they did not want her.
Shamima Begum travelled to Syria in 2015 aged just 15, but after giving birth in a refugee camp last weekend says she wants to go home.