US-backed rebels set Manbij deadline for ISIL
REUTERS photoU.S.-backed fighters on July 21 gave the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) 48 hours to leave the battleground Syrian town of Manbij, after U.S.-led air strikes nearby reportedly killed dozens of civilians.
The raids on July 19 by the coalition fighting ISIL in Syria and Iraq provoked an intense backlash and local protests.
Syria’s opposition National Coalition urged the U.S.-led coalition to suspend its strikes, and international rights groups demanded a thorough investigation.
The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance that issued the ultimatum said it was intended to “protect civilian lives” in Manbij, a jihadist bastion in Aleppo province close to the border with Turkey.
The alliance has been fighting to oust ISIL from the town since late May, backed by heavy coalition air strikes.
“This initiative is the last remaining chance for besieged members of Daesh [ISIL] to leave the town,” said the Manbij Military Council, part of the SDF, according to AFP.
“In order to protect civilian lives and property and to protect the town from destruction we announce that we accept the initiative under which besieged ISIL members would leave with their individual light weapons,” the statement added.
The initiative was first floated last week by tribal leaders in Manbij, an SDF commander told AFP.
“But we took this decision now after ISIL used residents as human shields, after the media pressure on us and to protect whatever civilians are left in the town,” the commander said on condition of anonymity.
The statement also urged civilians to try to leave Manbij or distance themselves from areas where clashes were taking place.
It follows an intense backlash over the reported deaths on July 19 of at least 56 civilians, including children, in U.S.-led air strikes while fleeing the ISIL-held village of Al-Tukhar near Manbij.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on July 20 pledged openness on allied accountability a day after dozens of civilians were killed in raids near an ISIL-held town in Syria.
“We will conduct an investigation on any possible civilian casualties in this matter, as we always do, and we’ll be transparent about that,” Carter said during a briefing at an air base outside Washington.
General Joe Votel, head of Centcom, said allies would “continue to do all we can to protect civilians from harm,” at the same news conference.
The Pentagon has acknowledged 41 civilian deaths in its strikes in both Syria and Iraq since 2014, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported more than 450 civilian killed in U.S.-led raids in Syria alone.
French President Francois Hollande said on July 21 that he had no precise information on whether French planes were responsible for the air strike in Manbij. The Syrian Foreign Ministry however said the attack was carried out by French forces.
“On the actions of the coalition, I have no exact information on what French planes could have done,” Hollande said.
“We are striking in the framework of the coalition and are very careful in our strikes,” he told reporters.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a daily briefing that it “gave no credit to statements made by the regime of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad” and that an investigation by the coalition would establish if coalition air strikes against ISIL had killed civilians.
The raids drew international condemnation including from the U.N.’s children agency, UNICEF.
“No matter where they are in Syria or under whose control they live - absolutely nothing justifies attacks on children,” said UNICEF’s Syria representative, Hanaa Singer.
The agency said as many as 20 children may have been killed in the strikes.
As discussions on the air strikes were continuing, at least 43 civilians, including 11 children, were killed in the bombardment of several rebel-held areas across Syria on July 21, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
On the same day, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that a high-level meeting of officials from Russia, the United States and the United Nations was due to take place in Geneva next week to discuss the Syrian crisis, Interfax reported, according to Reuters.