U.S.-backed forces enter Islamic State bastion in Syria amid clashes
Iraqi forces advance in Fallujah, Iraq on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (AP / Hadi Mizban)
Sarah El Deeb, The Associated Press
Published Thursday, June 23, 2016 1:20AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 23, 2016 11:43AM EDT
BEIRUT -- The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces pushed into the outskirts of the Islamic State group's stronghold of Manbij in northern Syria on Thursday and were advancing slowly to the centre of town, an adviser to the predominantly Kurdish force and a monitoring group said.
The town is a key waypoint on an IS supply line between the Turkish border and the extremist group's de facto capital, Raqqa, which is also under intense pressure from a Syrian government offensive. If Manbij is captured, it will be the biggest strategic defeat for IS in Syria since July 2015, when it lost the border town of Tal Abyad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said intense fighting was taking place between IS fighters and the SDF on the southwestern edge of Manbij.
Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the monitoring group which relies on a network of activists in Syria, said the SDF recaptured a village about 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) outside the town, enabling them to move on to seize two squares on the western side of Manbij.
The forces then advanced toward a third square with air support from the U.S.-led coalition, he said.
An adviser to the SDF, Nasser Haj Mansour, said the troops had moved into the town from its northern edge on Wednesday, close to its grain silos, prompting clashes with IS militants. He confirmed that other troops entered Manbij from the west. Abdurrahman said IS still controls the silos. He said fighters on the ground reported that the silos are within close range.
Journalist Mustafa Bali, who accompanied the SDF fighters on the front line Wednesday, said it was only a matter of time before the silos are taken. The silos are separated from the city by a main highway, he said, estimating that the SDF are about 3 kilometres (1.8 miles) from the city centre and only 2 kilometres (1 mile) from the main city hospital.
"There are intense clashes on all the city's edges," Bali said.
The U.S. Central Command said in a statement Thursday that the Syrian Arab Coalition, which is part of the SDF, "have consolidated their position around Manbij in anticipation of the next phase of operations."
"For the last seven days they have been refining their plans as to how to gain a foothold in Manbij and maintain the safety of the civilian population trapped" by IS, the statement said. Thousands of civilians have fled Manbij in recent weeks.
The U.S. has embedded 300 Special Forces troops with the SDF. France also confirmed it is providing training to the SDF.
The operation against IS in Manbij began on May 31. The U.S. Central Command also said the international coalition has since conducted more than 233 airstrikes in the vicinity of the town.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State's news agency Aamaq said the group's militants repelled an advance by the SDF from north of Manbij, adding that a suicide attack against the retreating forces killed many fighters.
Mansour, the SDF adviser, said suicide bombings are no obstacle to advancing on Manbij.
"They are no longer a surprise for the forces in Manbij," he said. "The tactic and their moves have become known and ineffective, particularly when there is always air support."
The Observatory said around 63 SDF fighters had been killed since the start of the operation. Meanwhile, the group said 458 IS militants, including field operators and foreign fighters, have been killed since May 31.
The U.S. Central command said displaced people from the Manbij area were beginning to return to their villages after they was cleared of IS fighters.
Also Thursday, at least eight civilians were killed in Syria's Aleppo when airstrikes and mortar shells struck different neighbourhoods in opposite sides of the divided city, anti-government activists and Syrian state media reported.
In past months, Aleppo has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting and bombardment, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of people on both sides of the contested city. Partial cease-fires have failed to hold in the city that has been divided between rebel and government areas since 2012.
Syria's state news agency SANA said four people were killed and four others wounded when rocket shells hit the government-controlled al-Khalidia district in Aleppo.
Meanwhile, the anti-government Aleppo Media centre said four civilians were killed when airstrikes hit the rebel-held al-Katerji neighbourhood.
Bebars Mishal, a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, a team of volunteer first responders operating in rebel-held areas, said the airstrike hit a residence, putting the number of those killed at five members of the same family. He said the search continued for others under the rubble.