Thousands of jihadists flee Isil's final stronghold as Baghuz is pounded

Josie Ensor
A fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the town of Baghouz - AFP

Western-backed forces on Wednesday claimed Isil’s caliphate was in its "final moments" after thunderous shelling on its last patch of territory in eastern Syria prompted a wave of jihadists to surrender.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) estimated around 3,000 had walked out of the shrinking Baghuz pocket in the last 48 hours, most of whom fighters, suggesting a coordinated surrender.

The final band of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) militants - estimated now to be in their hundreds - still managed later in the day to launch two counterattacks.

“The second one was much stronger since they took advantage of smoke, dust and sand over Baghuz,” a spokesman for the SDF told the Telegraph. “Fighting is still continuing. Daesh made no progress so far and were stopped.”

Isil has often taken advantage during sandstorms, which ground US-led coalition aircraft and leave SDF fighters unprotected.

The forces did however manage to stop a number of suicide bombers from reaching their positions.

The coalition yesterday released figures which showed between February 24 and March 9 they had struck 35 car and truck bombs - an extraordinary high number for a relatively small space.

"We are still countering the assault until this very moment," said another official. "This could be their final attack."

Isil put out a new propaganda video overnight on Monday filmed in recent weeks inside Baghuz, keeping up the pretence that life inside was normal and urging its supporters to keep the faith.

"Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell," one of the men interviewed in the 15-minute video said.

At the same time it released a shorter audio, which claimed its remaining fighters and members, including women and children, were being subjected to a “holocaust”.

"Brothers in Europe and in the whole world rise and take revenge for your religion,” one voice urged.

Analysts believe Isil leaders are directing large numbers of fighters to surrender, in order that they can live and one day regroup.

Those left in the dwindling Baghuz pocket had been living in a shanty town of tents made of blankets, and in tunnels.

During a recent visit to the frontline, the Telegraph could see abandoned cooking pots and ammunition lying on the ground.

The SDF and its US allies had massively underestimated the number of civilians that had been inside the one-mile-square pocket. They had suggested that no more than 2,000 remained in early February, however, since then more than 30,000 have emerged.

The numbers have overwhelmed aid agencies operating in displacement camps, where more than 100 people have died in recent weeks.

The UN's food agency on Tuesday appealed for urgent funding for the al-Hol camp, which is receiving the bulk of evacuees.

The SDF yesterday put a temporary ban on media access to the camps, reportedly unhappy with recent coverage.

They are also said to be at an impasse in talks with Western governments over the fate of their captured jihadists. SDF is now detaining more than 2,000 foreign jihadists and thousands more of their wives and children, and warn they will not hold them forever.

Morocco agreed this week to repatriate eight fighters, joining six other countries to do so, while Iraq is reportedly willing to take back all 20,000 being held in Syria.

The UK has taken the toughest stance, refusing return of their nationals and in some cases revoking their citizenship.