Clashes rock Syria's Manbij as ISIS ignores ultimatum

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Islamic State group militants (IS, formerly known as ISIS or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) clashed on Saturday, July 23, with US-backed fighters in the Syrian town of Manbij, pursuing their fierce defense of the jihadist stronghold and ignoring a deadline to leave.

There are growing fears for the fate of civilians trapped in Manbij, formerly a key stop along ISIS's supply route from neighboring Turkey into its self-styled Islamic "caliphate" in Syria. (READ: Offensive in Syria aimed at cutting off ISIS supply route)

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) penetrated the town one month ago but have since been hindered by a bloody ISIS counter-offensive and concerns about the civilian population.

On Saturday, ISIS jihadists appeared to ignore a 48-hour ultimatum to leave issued by the Manbij Military Council, a key member of the SDF.

"The 48-hour period is over, and there will be no more opportunities like this one for Daesh (ISIS)," a commander from the council told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on condition of anonymity.

ISIS has "not responded" to the SDF's offer and had instead "attacked our positions", he said.

The ultimatum came after at least 56 civilians, including children, were reportedly killed Tuesday, July 19, in US-led coalition air strikes near Manbij.

The commander pledged that his forces would "intensify our attacks on their remaining positions" there while working to "secure safe passages" for civilians looking to flee.

Thousands of civilians have already fled Manbij, which lies in Syria's northern Aleppo province.

More than half of Syria's population has been displaced since the country's conflict erupted in 2011, and at least 280,000 people have been killed.

'Fight like we haven't seen'

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF forces were advancing in Manbij, moving steadily north from districts they already control in the town's west and south.

An SDF field commander inside Manbij told AFP on Saturday 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, as well as 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, 14 kilometers (9 miles) from Manbij.

Bombing raids have meanwhile continued unabated, with the Pentagon reporting 9 strikes near Manbij on Friday, July 22.

Coalition spokesman Colonel Chris Garver said on Friday that ISIS 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 jihadists were ousted this year.

"It's a fight like we haven't seen before," said Garver.

He estimated that the SDF had seized roughly half the town, an area still housing at least 2,000 civilians.

ISIS use 'human shields, bait'

ISIS was using residents of Manbij "as human shields and as bait" in order to draw the fire of the SDF towards civilians, Garver added.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman accused ISIS of "pushing children towards the frontlines" as it tried to defend its positions.

Garver said that Tuesday's controversial air raid was called after the SDF "observed a large group of Daesh (IS) fighters in a convoy who appeared to be readying for a counterattack".

"The strike was against both buildings and vehicles," but 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.

But the Britain-based Observatory says that 594 civilians have been killed in coalition raids across Syria – more than 100 in Manbij alone.

ISIS and its jihadist rival Al-Nusra Front are not included in global efforts to put an end to fighting in war-ravaged Syria.

Repeated attempts by Washington and steadfast regime ally Moscow to reinforce a nationwide ceasefire have largely failed, with violence continuing across the country.

Dozens of civilians died in bombardment Saturday, the Observatory said, with 10 killed in raids by unidentified warplanes in eastern Deir Ezzor province and 8 dead in suspected Russian strikes in the northwest.

Air raids killed 7 family members, including 4 children, in the central Hama province, and another 8 people including 3 children east of Damascus, the Observatory said.

The besieged parts of northern Aleppo city were also pounded including with barrel bomb, killing 5 civilians in several neighborhoods. – Rappler.com