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Islamic State evacuations from last Syrian holdout exceed 600 as assault looms

Islamic State militants who remain include seasoned fighters prepared to die in last stand
UN says 25,000 people have fled violence over last six months as die-hard militants have battled to defend their dwindling bastions (AFP/file photo)

More than 600 people were evacuated on Saturday from the Islamic State (IS) group's remaining holdout in eastern Syria, a monitor said, as US-backed fighters prepared for a final assault on the area.

"More than 600 people, mainly women and children, were evacuated on 25 buses sent" by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said several dozen militants were among those evacuated to areas held by the Kurdish-Arab alliance. 

The SDF, backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition, in September launched an offensive to oust IS from the rump of the once-sprawling "caliphate" it proclaimed in 2014, AFP said.

The IS militants who remain include seasoned fighters who are prepared to die in a last stand. The Euphrates River area of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor near the border with Iraq is considered the remaining IS territory, according to the Arab News.

In mid-December, the SDF took Hajin, the last town of note in the IS-controlled area, signalling the imminent fall of the last bastion.

Still, the fight to eliminate the remaining pockets of IS was shaken by US President Donald Trump's shock December announcement that he is withdrawing US troops from Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday sought to reassure Washington's Kurdish allies in the fight against IS, who fear the departure of American troops may allow Turkey to attack them.

Pompeo said on Saturday in Abu Dhabi that he was optimistic that a "good outcome" could be reached between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish groups, after speaking to the Turkish foreign minister, Reuters reported.

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"We recognise the Turkish people's right to defend their country from terrorists, but we also know that those who are not terrorists and fighting alongside us for all this time deserve to be protected," Pompeo told reporters. "There are many details to be worked out but I am optimistic we can achieve a good outcome," he said.

Pompeo described the US exit as a "tactical change" in military strategy that wouldn't deter efforts to defeat IS or hurt US interests in the region, NPR reported.

Abdel Rahman said 16,000 people, including 760 IS fighters, have fled the area since the start of December. But "this is the first time that buses have been provided by the SDF and coalition", he said, suggesting a deal had been struck between the warring sides.

The United Nations said on Friday that about 25,000 people have fled the violence over the last six months as the die-hard militants have battled to defend their dwindling bastions. 

An estimated 2,000 civilians remain trapped in the area around the town of Hajin, the UN said.

The US-led coalition on Saturday fired more than 20 missiles against IS positions, the Observatory said.