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Suicide attack in Syria claimed by Islamic State kills US forces

Blast hit busy restaurant in Manbij, killing several US-led coalition service members and at least 15 other bystanders
Image grab taken from video published by Hawar News Agency (ANHA) shows unidentified member of security forces at scene of suicide attack in northern Syrian town of Manbij (AFP)

A deadly suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group has killed several US-led coalition service members in a restaurant in northern Syria's Manbij.

Four Americans were killed and three more wounded, the Reuters news agency cited a US official as saying. Fifteen other people died in the attack, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group.

Dozens were wounded and killed. I could see pieces of bodies everywhere. It has been a while since an attack like this happened

- Salama al-Bahje, Manbij resident

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered a different death toll. Speaking in Ankara at a news conference with Croatia's president, Erdogan said 20 people died, including five US security force members.

US Central Command tweeted that two US service members, one Department of Defence civilian, and one contractor supporting the DoD were killed and three service members were wounded in the blast, which was claimed by IS through its Amaq propaganda arm.

Amaq, IS's propaganda arm, said the attacker targeted the patrol using an explosive vest.

Witnesses and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia that controls the town near the Turkish border appeared to confirm this, saying the blast hit a restaurant with coalition troops inside.

The US-led coalition acknowledged reports of the attack, saying in a statement: "US service members were killed during an explosion while conducting a routine patrol in Syria today. We are still gathering information and will share additional details at a later time."

An image grab taken from a video published by Hawar News Agency (ANHA) on January 16, 2019, shows people gathered at the scene of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij (AFP)

Eyewitnesses told Middle East Eye that the attack took place at the al-Omara restaurant, which is a favourite among locals, especially at lunchtime. 

Khaled Awsah, who lives in the Kurdish-controlled area, told MEE that dozens had been wounded in the attack and hospitalised, including his brother, who was waiting for him at the restaurant. 

"There were SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] and American fighters having lunch as well, like the locals, who come every day to eat in that restaurant, which is famous and located in the middle of the city."

"I saw someone wearing an explosive vest who blew himself up in the restaurant," he added.

Another Manbij resident, electronics shop-owner Salama al-Bahje, said: "Dozens were wounded and killed. I could see pieces of bodies everywhere. It has been a while since an attack like this happened."

Air lifts for the wounded

Manbij residents told MEE that an American helicopter flew to the site from a nearby US military base to pick up the wounded US service members. Civilian casualties were taken to a nearby hospital, they said.

Video footage given to MEE showed a helicopter landing in a school playground. MEE could not verify whether it was an American helicopter. 

Pictures and videos circulated online by activists in Manbij showed body parts scattered across the area where the attack took place. 

Hours after the attack, US Vice President Mike Pence said that IS has been defeated.

Pence did not mention the deaths in an address to 184 chiefs of US diplomatic missions gathered in Washington from around the world for a speech that sounded more like a campaign rally than a strategic overview of US foreign policy.

"The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated," Pence told the US ambassadors and other senior American diplomats, using a different acronym for IS.

Earlier, a spokeswoman for Pence's office, Alyssa Farah, said the vice president had been briefed about the soldiers' deaths and expressed his sympathy.

US troops, who were deployed in Syria to assist the Kurdish-led SDF in its battles against IS, have been patrolling Manbij for months following an agreement with Turkey, which sees the Kurdish presence in the historically Arab-majority town as problematic.

Last month, US President Donald Trump announced the surprise decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, at once claiming that the battle against IS had been won and Turkey would defeat the militant group's remnants.

The SDF, backed by US air strikes, is currently battling IS militants in the last areas the group controls in eastern Deir Ezzor province.

About 10,000 Syrians have been displaced by the fighting, according to the United Nations, with fears that IS militants and their families may be attempting to blend in with fleeing civilians.