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Thousands of civilians fleeing Islamic State stronghold of Manbij: Monitor

UK-based Syrian Observatory estimates that at least 13,000 people have escaped IS-held town since US-backed offensive began last month
Syrian Kurdish woman flashes victory sign during funeral of eight members of Syrian Democratic Forces (source AFP)

At least 13,000 civilians have fled the Islamic State (IS) group stronghold of Manbij in northern Syria since the launch of a US-backed offensive there, a monitor said on Monday.

Kurds and Arabs fighting as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance began their assault on Manbij in late May, encircling the town and entering its southwestern districts on June 23.

"At least 13,000 civilians have fled Manbij since the beginning of the SDF operation on May 31," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

"The fleeing increased after the SDF besieged Manbij" on 10 June, he said, adding that on Sunday "hundreds of people fled a southern district of the town where there have been fierce clashes in recent days".

Manbij had served as a vital IS supply route from Turkey, from the border town of Jarabulus to its bastion province of Raqqa.

The SDF offensive on the town is backed by a US-led coalition that has been bombing IS in Iraq and Syria for nearly two years.

The UN's humanitarian office has not released its own estimates of how many people have fled Manbij, but said in late June that about 60,000 people were still in the town.

According to Abdel Rahman, residents are mostly fleeing from the southern SDF-controlled district into IS-free territory to the south.

The SDF transported one group north to the Kurdish stronghold of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border.

He said some civilians had died trying to escape, killed by IS snipers or explosives planted by the militants.

SDF fighters have been struggling to advance inside Manbij in recent days as IS has dispatched suicide attackers to defend the town.

"Daesh [IS] has used car bombs against a number of our positions," an SDF field commander told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.

The SDF confirmed on its official Facebook page that its forces clased with IS militants on three fronts in the Manbij area.  

The alliance, a multi-ethnic force dominated by the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), is leading an operation to liberate Manbij from IS under the umbrella of the locally formed Manbij Military Council.