ISIS clashed Saturday with U.S.-backed fighters in Syria’s Manbij as a 48-hour deadline loomed for the jihadists to leave the battleground town and as a sign that the militants appeared to have shunned the offer for its members to withdraw safely.
The ultimatum was issued Thursday by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish alliance that is fighting ISIS with support from a U.S.-led coalition.
The SDF-allied Manbij Military Council said ISIS militants would be allowed to leave the city with light weapons, without a fight, if their departure took place within 48 hours.
Manbij is located in the northern province of Aleppo on ISIS’s main supply route between Syria and Turkey.
The offer had been initiated by local actors, the Council’s spokesman Sharfan Darwish said, without elaborating.
“The deadline is approaching, time is almost up … and the battles are continuing. As far as we’re concerned, the situation has not changed,” he said on Saturday, adding that there had been no apparent response from ISIS to the initiative.
“Our steps towards liberating Manbij are going ahead.”
The jihadists are accused of using civilians as human shields in Manbij.
The ultimatum came after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said that at least 56 civilians, including children, were killed on Tuesday in coalition air strikes near Manbij.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Chris Garver said on Friday that ISIS had “used civilians as human shields and as bait” in order to draw the fire of the SDF towards civilians.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said there were sporadic clashes inside Manbij and raids by the U.S.-led coalition on the town as the deadline approached for ISIS to leave.
“ISIS is fiercely resisting attempts by the SDF forces to advance inside the city and is pushing children towards the frontlines in spite of the deadline,” he said.
The coalition spokesman said that the jihadists were mounting an exceptionally tough fightback in Manbij.
Fighting has grown more intense as SDF units move into the city, he said, “which is sort of different than what we saw in Ramadi and what we saw in Fallujah,” two Iraqi cities from which jihadists were ousted this year.
“It’s a fight like we haven’t seen before,” said Garver.
He estimated that the SDF had taken back roughly half the city, an area still housing at least 2,000 civilians.
Garver said he could not confirm that the SDF had issued an ultimatum to ISIS jihadists to leave Manbij.
He said that Tuesday’s air raid was called after the SDF “observed a large group of ISIS militants in a convoy who appeared to be readying for a counterattack.”
“The strike was against both buildings and vehicles,” said Garver.
Afterwards, the spokesman said, the coalition received both internal and external reports “that there may have been civilians in the area who are mixed in and among the ISIS fighters.”
The U.S.-led coalition has opened an investigation into the reports of civilian deaths, which have sparked condemnation including from Syrian activists and opposition groups.