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SDF siege of Manbij traps tens of thousands of civilians

Food supplies dwindle as US-backed forces encircle key town held by Islamic State; reclaimed areas also facing struggle with hunger
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overlook the encircled northern Syrian town of Manbij. (AFP)

A siege by US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces of the key militant-held city of Manbij in northern Syria left tens of thousands of civilians trapped on Saturday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by US air strikes encircled Manbij on Friday, severing the group's principal supply route between Turkey and its de facto Syrian capital, Raqa city. Manbij lies at the heart of the last stretch of territory along Turkey's border still under IS control.

As pressure has grown on several fronts against IS, which declared a cross-border "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq in 2014, it has fought back with deadly bombings. Near Damascus on Saturday, suicide bombings claimed by IS killed at least 20 people outside a Shiite shrine, the latest in several deadly strikes on the revered site.

With SDF forces now surrounding Manbij, "tens of thousands of civilians still there can't leave as all the routes out of town are cut," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "Bakeries in the town haven't been open since Friday and food is beginning to become rare."

Warplanes from a US-led coalition have been conducting heavy bombing raids on the city and its surroundings, the Britain-based monitoring group's head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said at least 159 IS fighters and 22 SDF troops had been killed as well as 37 civilians, most of the last group in coalition air raids, since the alliance launched its Manbij offensive on May 31.

Everything forbidden

Manbij had a pre-war population of about 120,000 - mostly Arabs, but about a quarter are Syrian Kurds. Thousands fled this week as the SDF closed in on the city, which has been held by IS since early 2014.

Outside the city in areas reclaimed by the Kurdish-led alliance from IS, the situation remains dire.

Dakish Fatimi, a Kurdish Red Crescent official, said his team had treated dozens of civilians wounded by landmines planted by retreating IS fighters, while residents of Jebb Hassan Agha village, 13 kilometres southeast of the city, said it has run out of bread and water.

An AFP reporter saw a young boy beg for bread from passing cars. "We haven't eaten bread for two days," he said, after the SDF seized the village at the start of the week.

Even so, Munzer Saleh, a resident of Jebb Hassan Agha village, said: "We're so happy, and we hope Manbij will soon be liberated as we have relatives there. 

"Our village was known for cigarette smuggling, so Daesh was always after us," he told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS,  which includes smoking among its various prohibitions.

Doha Hajj Ali, a young woman, cursed the militants who had laid down strict rules to govern her and her neighbours' lives.

"They'd say, 'Cover your eyes' ... Make-up, parties, and weddings were not allowed."

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