Wounded and alone, children emerge from last ISIS enclave
Kurdish-led SDF advances on 2 fronts near Baghouz to route extremists remaining in eastern Syria
Hareth Najem fled the last ISIS enclave in eastern Syria wounded and alone. The Iraqi orphan's family had died two years earlier in airstrikes across the border in al-Qaim region.
Lying in a cattle truck beside another injured boy at a desert transit point for U.S.-backed forces, Hareth huddled under a blanket.
His face was covered in dirt and the side of his head wrapped with bandages covering wounds incurred days earlier.
Hareth was 11 years old when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria carved out its "caliphate" in both Iraq and Syria, killing thousands of civilians and attracting an array of enemies that have fought from the air and on the ground to uproot the jihadists.
Now 16, he was among the children swept up this week in the civilian evacuation of Baghouz, the last shred of land under the jihadists' control where they are on the brink of defeat at the hands of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Around 20 children crossed the frontline on their own this week, including Iraqis, Syrians, Turks and Indonesians, said SDF commander Adnan Afrin.
The fathers of some were identified as ISIS fighters and arrested immediately.
"These children who are coming out have no parents or guardians," said Afrin, adding that some had gone hungry for a long time. The SDF plans to hand over the children to aid groups, he said.
The SDF began an operation on Friday to clear the last remaining pocket of ISIS fighters from the besieged village of Baghouz, and the operation resumed on Saturday.
The military campaign to uproot the militants from the eastern bank of the Euphrates River began in September, pushing them down toward Baghouz, near the Iraqi border.
The operation was halted Feb. 12 after the Kurdish-led SDF said a large number of civilians and hostages were holed up in the territory.
Fighters of the SDF, which includes fighters of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), advanced on two fronts on Saturday as the extremists used snipers and booby traps to slow the push on the area while hiding in caves and tunnels.
With files from The Associated Press