Retreating ISIL fighters take 2,000 civilians as human shields

Extremist fighters driven from Manbij take residents with them as they flee to Jarabalus on the border with Turkey.
Syria Democratic Forces fighters greet civilians who were evacuated from an ISIL-controlled neighbourhood of Manbij in Aleppo province on August 12, 2016. The SDF said ISIL abducted 2,000 residents of the town to use as human shields. Rodi Said / Reuters
Syria Democratic Forces fighters greet civilians who were evacuated from an ISIL-controlled neighbourhood of Manbij in Aleppo province on August 12, 2016. The SDF said ISIL abducted 2,000 residents of the town to use as human shields. Rodi Said / Reuters

BEIRUT // Around 2,000 civilians have been taken hostage as human shields by ISIL forces retreating from the northern Syrian town of Manbij, a coalition fighting the extremists and a monitoring group said on Friday.

Sherfan Darwish, a spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, said ISIL fighters used the civilians to ensure that they were not attacked as they withdrew north to Jarablus, an ISIL-held town on Syria’s border with Turkey.

The council is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab factions that have surrounded Manbij since June. In a rare move last month, the SDF offered ISIL safe passage out of Manbij in a bid to avoid civilian casualties that they feared would come with an assault on the town. ISIL ignored the offer.

By the end of July, the SDF had captured most of Manbij with the help of air strikes from the US-led anti-ISIL coalition. In recent days, only small pockets of ISIL fighters remained in the town.

While around 2,000 civilians were abducted by ISIL in their retreat, Mr Darwish, the Manbij Military Council spokesman, said that an additional 2,500 civilians who had been held captive by ISIL were freed by the SDF.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources in Syria, said the civilians were placed in hundreds of cars that then headed for Jarabulus.

Elsewhere in Syria, government forces continued their assault on rebels in and around the city of Aleppo, where last week a coalition of opposition factions broke a three-week government siege of the city’s east. On Friday, air strikes in Aleppo province hit a market, a hospital and a village, killing at least 18 people.

Air strikes continued to target healthcare and emergency response facilities in the area.

A hospital in the town of Kafr Hamra, on the northern front line between rebels and government troops in Aleppo, was hit before dawn, killing two workers. A Syrian Civil Defense centre in eastern Aleppo was also hit by an air strike.

Last month, 43 health care facilities in opposition areas of Syria were partly or completely destroyed by the conflict.

“With heavy bombing continuing relentlessly in Aleppo especially, hospitals and clinics need to be treated as the sacred life-saving places they are, not as additional bombing targets,” Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch said.

As the United Nations continues to urge weekly ceasefires to allow the delivery of aid to civilians trapped in Aleppo and a resumption of diplomatic talks, Turkey said on Friday that it was willing to work with Iran to resolve the conflict in Syria.

“We will closely cooperate on these issues [on Syria] after this meeting. There are issues we agree on, especially on Syrian territorial integrity,” said Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Friday after meeting with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iran and Turkey have actively backed opposing sides involved in the war. Iran supports Syria’s government as well as Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias active in the war. Beyond supplying weapons, Iran has also sent military advisers and personnel to the conflict.

Since the early days of the war, Turkey has backed Syria’s rebels and provided the main entry point for rebel weapons and supplies.

However, as Turkey falls out with the United States and European countries in the aftermath of a failed coup last month, Ankara has been aggressively courting other powers active in the Middle East.

The meeting between Mr Zarif and Mr Cavusoglu came just days after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Russian president Vladimir Putin, Damascus’ other key ally. After that meeting in St Petersburg, Turkey said it was willing to cooperate militarily with Russia in combating ISIL.

Ankara also said last month that it intended to work to restore relations with Damascus.

Whether these latest diplomatic moves signify a real shift in foreign policy or are just an attempt to grab the attention of western countries that have been increasingly critical of Turkey’s post-coup attempt crackdown remains to be seen.

jwood@thenational.ae

​* With additional reporting from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

Published: August 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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