Islamic State (IS) group militants on Saturday clashed with US-backed fighters in the Syrian town of Manbij, pursuing their fierce defense of the stronghold and ignoring a deadline to leave.
There are growing fears for the fate of civilians trapped in Manbij, formerly a key stop along the Islamic State’s supply route from neighboring Turkey into its self-styled Islamic “caliphate” in Syria.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) penetrated the town one month ago, but have since been hindered by a bloody counter-offensive amid concerns about civilians.
On Saturday, militants appeared to ignore a 48-hour ultimatum to leave issued by the Manbij Military Council, a key SDF member.
“The 48-hour period is over and there will be no more opportunities like this one for DAESH,” a commander from the council told reporters on condition of anonymity using an Arabic-language acronym for the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has “not responded” to the SDF’s offer and instead “attacked our positions,” he said.
The ultimatum came after at least 56 civilians, including children, were reportedly killed on Tuesday in US-led coalition airstrikes near Manbij.
The commander pledged that his forces would “intensify our attacks on their remaining positions.”
Council spokesman Sherfan Darwish said in an online statement on Saturday that SDF forces in Manbij “are committed to securing safe passage to the best of their ability for any civilian able to flee DAESH’s brutality.”
Thousands of civilians have already fled Manbij, which is in Syria’s northern Aleppo province.
More than half of Syria’s population has been displaced since the conflict began in 2011 and at least 280,000 people have been killed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF forces were advancing in Manbij, moving steadily north from districts they already control in the west and south.
An SDF field commander inside Manbij told reporters that the main clashes were “near the security quarter in the center of the town.”
The civilian deaths in Tuesday’s raids sparked an intense backlash from activists and rights groups and a call from a prominent Syrian opposition body for the coalition to halt its air campaign until a thorough investigation is completed.
The coalition has said it is investigating the reports of civilian fatalities in the town of al-Tukhar, 14km from Manbij.
Bombing raids have meanwhile continued unabated, with the Pentagon reporting nine strikes near Manbij on Friday.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Chris Garver on Friday said that the Islamic State was mounting an exceptionally tough fightback.
The battle has intensified as SDF units move deeper into the town, he said, “which is sort of different than what we saw in Ramadi and what we saw in Fallujah,” two Iraqi cities from which militants were ousted this year.
“It’s a fight like we haven’t seen before,” he said.
Garver estimated that the SDF had seized roughly half of Manbij, an area still housing at least 2,000 civilians.
The Islamic State was using residents “as human shields and as bait” to draw SDF fire toward civilians, Garver said.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman accused the group of “pushing children towards the frontlines” as it tried to defend its positions.
Garver said Tuesday’s controversial air raid was called after the SDF “observed a large group of DAESH fighters in a convoy who appeared to be readying for a counterattack.”
The coalition later received reports that there may have been civilians mixed in among the militants, he added.
Earlier this year, the coalition said 41 civilians had been killed in its bombing raids in both Iraq and Syria since August 2014.
The Britain-based Observatory says that 594 civilians have been killed in coalition raids across Syria — more than 100 in Manbij alone.
Repeated attempts by Washington and Syria ally Moscow to reinforce a nationwide ceasefire have largely failed, with violence continuing.
Dozens of civilians died in bombardments on Saturday, the Observatory said, with 10 killed in raids by unidentified warplanes in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and eight dead in suspected Russian airstrikes in the northwest.
Air raids killed seven family members, including four children, in the central Hama province, and another eight people including three children east of Damascus, it said.
The besieged parts of northern Aleppo city were also pounded including with barrel bombs, killing 12 civilians in several neighborhoods, it said.
OFF BORDER ISLAND: The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel wearing a life jacket and leaving behind his shoes, indicating an intentional move, Seoul said North Korean soldiers shot dead a suspected South Korean defector at sea and burned his body as a COVID-19 precaution after he was interrogated in the water over several hours, Seoul military officials said yesterday. It is the first killing of a South Korean citizen by North Korean forces for a decade, and comes with Pyongyang at high alert over the COVID-19 pandemic and inter-Korean relations at a standstill. The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, the official said. More than 24 hours later, North Korean forces located him in their waters and
ACADEMIC FREEDOM: One professor told her students to submit anonymized papers and not to record any online classes. Some US schools have announced similar steps Students at Oxford University specializing in the study of China are being asked to submit some papers anonymously to protect them from the possibility of retribution under the sweeping new security law introduced three months ago in Hong Kong. The anonymity ruling is to be applied in classes, and group tutorials are to be replaced by one-to-ones. Students are also to be warned that it will be viewed as a disciplinary offence if they tape classes or share them with outside groups. The Hong Kong National Security Law was imposed on June 30 by Beijing after more than a year of pro-democracy
Japan’s government yesterday urged people to seek help if they were struggling to cope, following Sunday’s death of the popular actress and Miss Sherlock star Yuko Takeuchi, 40. News of her death shocked the nation and follows other recent cases of Japanese celebrities taking their lives, with figures showing a recent rise in suicides. Takeuchi was a household name in Japan and had given birth to her second child in January. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato did not mention a particular case, but said that some people were struggling to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There has been an uptick in the number
The scarcity of commercial flights landing at Sydney Airport has been a disaster for airlines and workers, but for hobby pilots the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the opportunity of a lifetime. The quieter-than-usual runways mean that private pilots have been given the chance to land at the international airport for the first time. When Sydney Flight College club captain Tim Lindley put out a call, he received an overwhelming response. He eventually organized for 14 light aircraft to fly into Sydney airport on Sunday. “For a lot of the pilots involved, including myself, it was a childhood dream to land in a big