Life returns to Manbij after Islamic State kicked out

  • 14/08/2016
Men cut off the beards they were forced to wear under IS rule (Reuters)
Men cut off the beards they were forced to wear under IS rule (Reuters)

Thousands of displaced residents have streamed back into the northern Syrian town of Manbij after US-backed fighters ousted the last Islamic State militants from their former stronghold.

The US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Friday they had seized full control of the city near the Turkish border after the departure of the last of the militants, who had been using civilians as human shields.

Hundreds of cars and vehicles carrying families and their belongings flocked into the city from makeshift camps and villages in the countryside, where many of the city's residents took shelter during the two-month campaign, according to an SDF official and relatives who were in contact with residents.

"Thousands are coming back and shops are opening. Today is the first day life is returning to normal," Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council told Reuters from the city, adding they were working to restore basic services.

Life returns to Manbij after Islamic State kicked out

A joyful young woman returns to the streets of Manbij (Reuters)

Pro-SDF news sites showed jubilant families who had been trapped in the city during the fighting talking about how harsh life was under Islamic State and its imposition of strict dress codes in public.

Their footage showed men shaving their beards and veiled women setting fire to niqabs they were forced to wear in public that covered their entire face apart from the eyes.

Life returns to Manbij after Islamic State kicked out

A woman sets fire to the niqab she was forced to wear under IS rule (Reuters)

The militants were finally ousted after a deal was reached on Friday that secured their departure together with some 2000 civilians, believed to have been their relatives, towards their stronghold of Jarablus near the border with Turkey, a Syrian from Manbij who is in touch with relatives there said.

It was not clear whether those leaving were hostages or had left voluntarily, a Kurdish source said.

The SDF, formed last year by recruiting Arabs to join forces with the powerful YPG Kurdish militia, launched an offensive with the support of US-led strikes at the end of May to remove Islamic State from areas it controls along the Turkish border.

The loss of Manbij, occupied by Islamic State since early 2014, is a big blow to the militants as it is of strategic importance, serving as a conduit for the transit of foreign jihadists and provisions from the Turkish border.

Life returns to Manbij after Islamic State kicked out

Civilian women celebrate after the liberation of the town (Reuters)

The operation, in which US special forces played a significant role on the ground, marks the most ambitious advance by a group allied to Washington in Syria since the US launched its military campaign against Islamic State two years ago.

The SDF, which had already cleared over 13,000 mines, was sweeping some neighbourhoods in search of militant sleeper cells suspected to still be operating.

The capture of Manbij bolsters the position of Kurds who already control an uninterrupted 400km stretch of Syria's northern border with Turkey.