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BEIRUT: US-led coalition air strikes on the last jihadist pocket in Syria on Monday killed 16 civilians, including at least seven children, a war monitor said.

Eight women and one elderly man were also among the civilians killed while trying to flee towards the Iraqi border, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The coalition was not immediately available for comment, but has repeatedly said it does its utmost to avoid targeting civilians.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard jihadists from their last patch of territory in eastern Syria on the Iraq border.

The SDF estimates that up to 600 IS fighters could still remain inside, most of them foreigners.

Nineteen IS fighters were killed in clashes with the SDF on Monday, the monitor said.

The Kurdish-led force lost nine fighters during battles with jihadists, the Observatory said.

The SDF does not usually divulge casualty figures until weeks or months later.

Foreigners still inside

Two French women who fled the militant Islamic State group’s last pocket in Syria said on Monday more foreigners were trapped inside, barred from leaving by Iraqi jihadists.

The Muslim converts said they paid smugglers to take them out of the battered IS-held holdout of Baghouz to territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

They said “massacres” had taken place in Baghouz, where others are still trapped with “nothing to eat”.

“There are many French, many muhajireen (foreigners who joined IS) and others who are trying to leave but they (IS) don’t let us,” said one.

“They said only the Syrians and Iraqis can be smuggled out,” said the woman, who said her first name was Christelle, from the city of Bordeaux.

She spoke from the back of a pickup truck packed with women and wailing children who would be taken to Kurdish-run prison camps in northern Syria.

Her two children, one and three, were laying on her lap, but she said her husband had died.

“What do I ask the French government? Just let me keep my kids. I just want my kids,” she said.

France has said it is considering repatriating around 130 of its nationals currently held by Kurdish authorities in Syria, but Christelle was not keen to go home.

“I would prefer to return to a different country where there is more Islam.

We can’t practise our religion (fully) in France,” she said.

Like everyone else in the truck, Christelle kept her black veil on but her skeletal, dirty hands were visible. She wore a cheap-looking silver ring.

She said that she converted to Islam and entered Syria in 2014 “for religion”.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2019