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story.lead_photo.caption Men wait for interrogation and security screenings Wednesday near Baghouz, Syria, after being moved out of Islamic State-held territory. The fighters left behind are willing to die, said a member of the group’s religious police who was evacuated.

BAGHOUZ, Syria -- 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 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 Islamic State's riverside pocket of land saw lines of pickups, motorcycles and people walking, apparently a group of evacuees.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is spearheading the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, has been surprised by the large number of civilians -- family members of militant fighters in the thousands -- who have been streaming out of the tiny enclave. In recent weeks, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces 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 past few days. The latest wave of evacuations brings the Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS, a step closer to defeat by the Syrian Democratic Forces. 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 the Islamic State 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 guided by the Syrian Democratic Forces walked 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 Syrian Democratic Forces officials, were rowdy and aggressive. They denounced journalists and praised the Islamic State. 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.

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 Islamic State 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."

Many among those leaving Wednesday appeared to be wives and children of 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.

The Syrian Democratic Forces 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 past three weeks, more than 10,000 people, many of them exhausted and wounded Islamic State 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. A Syrian Democratic Forces commander said Wednesday that when the last batch of civilians and evacuees leaves, the group will bomb the remaining hard-core 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 Syrian Democratic Forces military commander said at least 400 militant fighters were caught trying to leave Tuesday. He said the men were working with a smuggling ring to get away from Syrian Democratic Forces areas. He also spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Section on 03/07/2019

Print Headline: ISIS families streaming out of last stronghold in Syria


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