Mon, Jul 25, 2016 - Page 4 News List

IS ignores deadline in key Syrian town

CHANCE TO ESCAPE?The Manbij Military Council said that government forces were ‘committed to securing safe passage ... for any civilian able to flee’ the militant group

AFP, BEIRUT

A gamer plays Pokemon Go amid rubble in the rebel-controlled town of Douma, Syria, on Saturday.

Photo: AFP

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.”

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