The operation to destroy Daesh's final vestige of rule in Iraq and Syria hit a temporary snag on Thursday, as an expected evacuation of the remaining civilians from its last enclave in eastern Syria did not go ahead, Reuters reports.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has steadily driven the jihadists down the Euphrates, has surrounded them at Baghouz near the Iraqi border but does not want to mount a final attack until all civilians are out.
Iraqi sources said the SDF handed over more than 150 Iraqi and other foreign jihadists to Iraq on Thursday, under a deal involving a total of 502.
The SDF had expected to pull the last civilians from Baghouz on Thursday, but trucks it sent in left empty. "We can't get into details, but today no civilians came out," SDF official Mustafa Bali told Reuters.
Baghouz is all that remains for Daesh in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria after it lost its major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.
The US-led coalition fighting Daesh was verifying whether an air strike in Baghouz on Wednesday killed French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced the recording claiming the November 2015 attacks on Paris, US and French sources said.
In the 2015 attacks, shooters and suicide bombers killed 129 people in the French capital. "During coalition operations to regain the Daesh's last bastion, it is possible indeed that Fabien Clain was killed," French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on her Twitter account.
France's military and foreign ministry declined to comment.
The capture of Baghouz will nudge the eight-year-old Syrian war towards a new phase, with US President Donald Trump's pledge to withdraw troops leaving a security vacuum that other powers are seeking to fill.
Though the fall of Baghouz marks a milestone in the campaign against Daesh and the broader conflict in Syria, Daesh is still seen as a significant security threat.
The group has steadily turned to guerrilla warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River – a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
Bali told Reuters the SDF would attack Baghouz once the civilian evacuation was complete. He did not say how much more time was needed to finish off the remaining Daesh militants or give a new estimate of how many fighters remained.
The SDF has previously estimated several hundred fighters – believed mostly to be foreign jihadists – are still inside.
A Reuters witness saw warplanes in the sky over Baghouz on Thursday though there was no sound of fighting or shelling.
The US-led coalition said on Wednesday "the most hardened" jihadists remain in Baghouz.
More than 2,000 civilians left the enclave on Wednesday, the SDF said. It has said more than 20,000 civilians left Baghouz in the days leading up to the start of the SDF's final push to capture the enclave this month.
The SDF has not ruled out the possibility that some Daesh fighters had left Baghouz with the civilians.
SDF and coalition forces are recording the names and questioning everyone who has left in the civilian convoys.
Many of the people who left the enclave in civilian convoys have been Iraqis, some of whom said they had crossed from Iraq into Syria as Iraqi government forces made gains against Daesh on the other side of the frontier.
Two Iraqi military sources told Reuters the handover of Daesh fighters on Thursday was the first of several.
"The majority of the fighters are Iraqi," said a military colonel whose unit is stationed at the Syrian border. "But we have a few foreigners."
Daesh, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself "caliph", or leader of all Muslims, in 2014, attracted members from all over the world, including many Western states.
A Turkish official said Turkey was doubling down its security measures to make it harder for foreign fighters still in Syria or Iraq to pass through Turkey, noting that the threat was much higher than the 800 that the SDF says it is holding.
Western countries refusing to repatriate jihadists were not living up to their responsibilities and leaving countries like Turkey to face the consequences, the official added.
Britain has stripped the citizenship of a teenager who went to Syria aged 15 to join Daesh. But interior minister Sajid Javid said he would not take a decision that would leave anyone stateless after Bangladesh said it would not accept her.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a woman born in the United States who joined Daesh did not qualify for US citizenship and had no legal basis to return to the country.