Islamic State militants along with women and children surrendered in the hundreds to US-backed forces in eastern Syria as the jihadists lost ground in their last piece of territory.
Many men were limping as they crossed from the Baghouz enclave over a rocky hill, with weeping children and veiled women dragging suitcases and backpacks behind them.
Some men trudged on crutches with legs bandaged. Women hoisted children onto their shoulders to get them up the hill, leaving strollers and blankets behind .
Adnan Afrin, a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said hundreds of people were emerging, adding to the thousands who exited Baghouz in recent weeks.
“They are coming this way in case there are snipers or someone wants to attack.”
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said some 1,300 jihadists and their families came out on Thursday. SDF fighters said they included foreigners.
The militants surrendered during a pause in the US-backed assault to seize the final patch of populated Islamic State territory – a self-declared “caliphate” once spanning a third of Iraq and Syria.
Explosions rang out at the front line as artillery fire pounded Baghouz and warplanes buzzed overhead.
The SDF, which the Kurdish YPG militia spearheads, said the jihadists deployed more than 20 suicide bombers in counter-attacks over the last two days.
It said at least 112 militants were killed since it resumed the offensive last weekend.
No Islamic State commanders are believed to be in Baghouz, a US defence official said. US government experts strongly believe leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive and possibly in Iraq.
The jihadists are still assessed as a potent security threat with a foothold in remote areas and are expected to escalate guerrilla attacks.
TWISTED METAL, FALLEN PALM TREES
Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared its ultra-radical Sunni Islamist “caliphate” and established a rule known for mass killings, sexual enslavement and punishment including crucifixion.
The militants suffered major military defeats in 2017, when they lost Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. They were then forced down the Euphrates River to their last bastion at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets on the eastern bank.
In part of the Islamic State encampment the SDF seized, collapsed tents and fallen palm trees lay among rubble and twisted metal.
Dirty, ripped blankets, carpets, mattresses and abandoned motorcycles littered the ground.
The SDF assault was postponed repeatedly over the last few weeks to evacuate people from the enclave, many of them wives and children of fighters.
Overall, thousands fled Islamic State’s shrinking territory in recent months. The SDF mostly transferred to a camp at al-Hol in the north-east.
The United Nations says the camp now holds around 67,000 people, 90% of them women and children – well beyond its capacity. Camp workers say they do not have enough tents, food or medicine. They warn of disease spreading.
Aid agencies say scores of people, mostly children, died en route to the camp or shortly after arriving.