SDF forces welcome civilians fleeing Manbij earlier in July. Photo: SDF Press Center
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region--The US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have told Islamic State (ISIS) militants that they have 48 hours to evacuate from the north of Manbij, an ISIS-occupied city that the SDF have completely surrounded.
The statement was issued from the Manbij Military Council, an umbrella organization coordinating the operation to liberate the city, which said that if ISIS abides by the ultimatum, they will be allowed to bring light weapons out of the city without being harmed.
According to Reuters, the council made it clear in the statement that, “this initiative is the only and the final one for the besieged Daesh [ISIS] elements to leave the city.”
This is the first time such a compromise has been offered to ISIS by the Kurds. The SDF issued the ultimatum to “protect civilian lives” in the city, it said.
"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 IS members would leave with their individual light weapons," the SDF added.
Militants in the city have been using the civilian population as human shields and have laid an extraordinary number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), increasing the risk of civilians being harmed.
Reports of high numbers of civilian casualties in coalition airstrikes in recent days have sparked international outrage, leading the United States to commit to investigating the allegations.
“I want to say that we're aware of reports of civilian casualties that may be related to recent coalition air strikes near Manbij city in Syria, which is one of the last junctions connecting Raqqa to the outside world,” said US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday.
“We will investigate these reports and continue to do all we can to protect civilians from harm. Being scrupulously careful to avoid civilian casualties and being transparent about this issue is a reflection of the civilized nature of this coalition."
The SDF acknowledges that there have been unfortunate civilian casualties but denied the large numbers being reported, saying that the reports circulating of large numbers of civilians killed in the village of Altukhar have been fabricated by terrorist organizations to undermine the SDF’s campaign.
Manbij is a strategic city for the Islamic State. It is 40 kilometres from the Turkey-Syria border and lies on the route between Raqqa and Turkey, and thus to Europe. Brett McGurk, the US Special Envoy for the global anti-ISIS coalition, described it as a “foreign-fighter hub.”
Capturing it will cut ISIS’ de facto capital of Raqqa off from this supply route, isolating the group. SDF forces have been steadily forcing ISIS back across Syria with continued US-led coalition air support.