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Final IS defeat looms as thousands leave last area in Syria

People sit in a truck after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, outside Baghouz, Syria, on March 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrea Rosa)

AL-OMAR OIL FIELD BASE, Syria (AP) -- Thousands of people, including militants, have left the last area held by the Islamic State group in Syria as the final defeat of the extremists' so-called "caliphate" at the hands of U.S.-backed forces loomed closer on Tuesday.

The spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Mustafa Bali, tweeted that about 3,000 people came out of the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria on Monday. They left through a humanitarian corridor established by the Kurdish-led forces for those who want to leave or surrender.

The exodus came three days after the U.S.-backed forces resumed their push on IS militants holed up in Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates River, close to the Iraqi border.

In the past weeks, thousands of civilians left the speck of territory in organized evacuations following an earlier halt in fighting. The Kurdish-led forces said their fighters were surprised by the large number of civilians, including IS family members, cooped up in the tiny area squeezed smaller and smaller by intermittent offensives.

The U.S. backed forces slowed down their push on Baghouz last week to allow civilians to leave the tiny enclave.

Since Feb. 20, more than 10,000 people have left the IS pocket, often in dramatic scenes of black-robed women with children in the back of trucks passing through the corridor and heading into the desert. They were then whisked off to a camp for displaced people to the north, while suspected IS fighters were moved to detention facilities.

Retaking the last IS-held enclave in Baghouz would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to end the group's self-proclaimed caliphate that once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq.

Bali said a large number among those who left Monday were IS fighters who "surrendered to our forces."

It is unclear how many IS militants and civilians remain inside, but the number is now likely in the hundreds.

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