US-backed forces wrest Syrian city back from ISIS

Women carrying newborn babies react with joy after getting evacuated by the Syrian Democratic Forces from Manbij. Losing the Syrian city is a big blow to the ISIS terror group, as it is of strategic importance, serving as a conduit for the transit of
Women carrying newborn babies react with joy after getting evacuated by the Syrian Democratic Forces from Manbij. Losing the Syrian city is a big blow to the ISIS terror group, as it is of strategic importance, serving as a conduit for the transit of foreign militants and provisions coming from the Turkish border.PHOTO: REUTERS

Over 2,000 hostages freed after remaining terrorists using civilians as human shields flee

BEIRUT • United States-backed forces have seized full control of the northern Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border, after the last fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who had been using civilians as human shields, left.

A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group said on Friday it was sweeping the city after the departure of the last group of militants who had been holed up there.

They had freed over 2,000 civilian hostages held by the militants, spokesman Sharfan Darwish of the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council told Reuters.

"The city is now fully under our control but we are undertaking sweeping operations," he said, adding that militant sleeper cells in the city are still a threat.

Meanwhile, in another blow to the terrorists, the leader of ISIS' branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan was killed in a US drone strike on July 26, a Pentagon spokesman said.

The death of Hafiz Saeed Khan is a blow to efforts by ISIS to expand from its heartlands in Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

US officials have said that once the Manbij operation is completed, it will create the conditions to move onto ISIS' de facto capital of Raqqa. US officials anticipate a tough battle.

SDF's offensive, which began at the end of May, aims to remove ISIS from areas it controls along the Turkish border.

The Manbij operation, in which US special forces have played a significant role on the ground, marks the most ambitious advance by a group allied to Washington in Syria since the US launched its military campaign against ISIS two years ago.

Manbij's loss is a big blow to the militants as it is of strategic importance, serving as a conduit for the transit of foreign militants and provisions coming from the Turkish border.

Earlier, the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters in the SDF said Friday's operation was "the last operation and the last assault".

Mr Darwish said earlier that roughly 100 ISIS fighters were left in the city centre and using civilians as human shields, some of whom were killed trying to flee.

Kurdish sources and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria's five-year conflict, later said around 500 cars had left Manbij carrying ISIS members and civilians.

They were heading north-east towards Jarablus, a town under ISIS control on the Turkish border, the Observatory said.

Dozens of civilians, including children and women from Manbij who had fled the city at the height of the aerial strikes, were killed in suspected US coalition air strikes last month, according to residents and monitors .

Meanwhile, on the death of Khan,US Defence Department deputy spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said the targeting of the ISIS branch leader was part of an operation by US and Afghan forces in Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan and is a hotbed of militant groups.

Khan, a former member of the Pakistani Taleban, had been the commander of ISIS in the Khorasan, an ancient name for the region that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In May, US officials said a drone strike in Pakistan had killed Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.

That operation was considered the most significant US raid inside Pakistan since Al-Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.

REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'US-backed forces wrest Syrian city back from ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe