Thousands of civilians fled a northern Syrian town in anticipation of a final push by US-backed forces to liberate it from ISIS rule Wednesday, as airstrikes pounded rebel-held districts in Aleppo, killing 15 civilians and damaging 3 hospitals.
The Syrian Democratic Forces have all but encircled Manbij, a key waypoint on an ISIS supply line between the Turkish border and the extremist group’s de-facto capital, Raqqa, according to an SDF adviser.
Nasser Haj Mansour said the ISIS group was allowing families to flee the town to nearby Jarablus and al-Bab. Some civilians fled to liberated villages and to the advancing forces, the adviser told the AP by messaging service from his position near the front line. He estimated some 15,000 civilians had fled.
The SDF have retaken some 70 villages and farms from ISIS militants in their campaign, which is now entering its tenth day, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Kurdish-led force, which also includes Arab fighters, has advanced under the cover of US-led airstrikes, and the US has embedded 300 Special Forces troops with it, though Washington says they are there in an advisory capacity.
Haj Mansour said ISIS militants were fighting to keep every village. “This is not something we have seen before. They are not leaving any positions,” he said. The Observatory, which relies on a network of local activists, said 82 fighters and 25 civilians were killed in the first week of fighting.
The campaign for Manbij has proven politically fraught for the predominantly Kurdish SDF, which is viewed with suspicion by Turkey over its links to Kurdish rebels, and Syrian opposition factions, which suspect it has colluded with the Syrian government. The SDF has said Manbij natives would fight the final campaign for the predominantly Arab town in an apparent bid to allay such fears.
The UN’s children’s agency UNICEF meanwhile said a hospital it supported along with two others in rebel-held parts of Aleppo came under attack Wednesday, as fighting in Syria’s largest city intensified once again.
“The Al Hakim hospital, a UNICEF supported facility, is one of the few that still provide pediatric services” in the eastern parts of the divided city, said Peter Salama, the agency’s regional director. “Everyone must question their humanity when babies have to be taken out of incubators because of attacks on hospitals,” he added.
The northern city has seen an uptick in violence in the last two days, with government forces pounding rebel-held eastern parts of the city with airstrikes while rebels are shelling western, government-held districts.
Activists said one of Wednesday’s strikes hit near the Bayan hospital in the rebel-held Shaar neighborhood, killing 10 people.
Videos uploaded on the internet by activists show massive destruction, fires and thick black smoke billowing from buildings. Wounded people are seen being loaded into ambulances. A body covered in thick gray dust is lying face down on a street littered with debris. The videos appeared authentic and correspond to AP reporting.
The Independent Doctors Association, which describes itself as a cross-border Syrian humanitarian organization providing health care to the province and the city of Aleppo, said on its Twitter account that an airstrike hit a children’s hospital it runs, destroying one floor.
The Observatory said 10 civilians were killed in Wednesday’s attack, including children. It said the airstrike hit a motorcycle repair shop in a square near the hospital. Five other civilians were killed in strikes that hit nearby districts. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist-run network, and volunteer first responders also said the airstrikes resulted in multiple casualties.
Hospitals and medical facilities have been regularly targeted in Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year. Since the start of the conflict in 2011, nearly 740 doctors and staff have been killed in more than 360 attacks on hospitals in Syria, according to Physicians for Human Rights.
Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym, MSF, says at least 100 staff members, patients and caretakers were killed, and at least 130 were wounded, in aerial bombing and shelling attacks on more than 80 MSF-supported and run health structures in 2015 and early 2016.
On April 27, an airstrike widely believed to have been carried out by the Syrian government destroyed the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, killing a pediatrician and dozens of colleagues, patients and other civilians.
Aleppo, once Syria’s thriving commercial center, has been divided and subject to a war of attrition between government and opposition forces since the summer of 2012.
North of Aleppo, rebels broke an ISIS siege on their stronghold of Marea, reopening the road linking the town to the Turkish border, activists said. The Observatory said ISIS withdrew from several villages near Marea, redeploying fighters to Manbij.