AL-OMAR OIL FIELD, Syria: Kurdish-led fighters vowed on Thursday (Feb 28) to crush the last remnant of the Islamic State group's "caliphate" in Syria within a week, after saying they have evacuated hundreds of people from the militant holdout.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are poised to storm the pocket held by militants on the edge of the village of Baghouz, the last patch of the organisation's once sprawling "caliphate".
Thousands of men, women and children, have poured out of the riverside hamlet in recent days, posing a huge humanitarian challenge for the US-backed Kurdish fighters leading the operation.
"In around one week, we will declare complete victory over IS," Mazloum Kobani, the general commander of the SDF said in a video released by the group's media office on Thursday.
His comments came as SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said that hundreds of men, women and children were plucked from the crumbling proto-state on Thursday, as the epilogue of the nearly six-month-old operation against the militants' last scrap of territory dragged on.
"Many foreigners from various nationalities were among them," he told AFP, without specifying.
"We checked the identification cards of all the men, so if there were any militants among them they were surely arrested," he said.
Earlier on Thursday, SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said his force was waiting to complete evacuations from Baghouz before launching a final push to defeat militants.
"We want the evacuation operations to finish as soon as possible so we can move to the next phase: an assault or the surrender" of the militants still inside, Afrin told AFP.
The SDF estimates the number of people inside the last IS redoubt, a patch of half a square kilometre on the banks of the Euphrates River, at anything from a few hundred to several thousand.
"We're not sure about the number of civilians still inside but everyday we're astonished by the number of people coming out. We didn't expect that," Afrin said.
The SDF announced on Thursday its forces had secured the release of 24 of their comrades who had been captured by the militants but did not specify how.
Their fate was is one reason the operation to flush out the militants has been slow moving, Kobani told the released hostages.
"We stopped military operations for your safety and now we have stopped the war for the safety of the rest of the comrades," he said.
It was unclear how many members of the SDF, an alliance of Kurdish troops and fighters from local Arab tribes, are still held in Baghouz.
There has been little fighting recently, with the use of human shields by the militants preventing major air raids to prepare for a ground assault.
The US-backed SDF is ready to move from the west and north of Baghouz while the Syrian regime fighters and Iraqi paramilitaries sealing the siege are stationed across the river and border.
Accounts from women who have left the enclave in recent days suggest IS is allowing many families to go, sending them to a hill from which they can walk to an assembly point and hand themselves over.
"We have been waiting here a long time for the vehicles that will take us out," said Nadia al-Hamid, a woman from the nearby city of Mayadin.
"Some of the Islamic State fighters say they want to die there," she said, claiming only foreign militants are left inside.
Thousands of women like Nadia, have been trucked to the camp of Al-Hol in recent days.
The droves of famished and often wounded women and children filling the Al-Hol camp, a six-hour drive to the north, has raised fears of an outbreak of dysentery.
Many of the civilians who spent months holed up in the last dreg of the "caliphate" proclaimed almost five years ago are in bad physical and mental health.
"There have been more than 100 cases of diarrhoea among new arrivals and efforts are ongoing to prevent an outbreak of dysentery," the International Rescue Committee said.
"We are now seeing thousands of people sleeping rough in the arrivals area at the camp, where they are exposed to the cold, wind and rain," said Misty Buswell, the IRC's Middle East advocacy director.
"Many of the children are having to cope without shoes or coats," she added.
Save the Children has also said much more should be done to treat the trauma suffered by the hundreds of children emerging from the ruins of the IS "caliphate".
The SDF said on Thursday it had discovered a mass grave containing the severed heads of women near Baghouz.
SDF spokesman Afrin said it was not yet clear who the victims were or how many bodies the grave held.