Syrians flee IS-held town as US-backed group approaches

Thousands of civilians fled a northern Syrian town Wednesday in anticipation of a final push by U.S.-backed forces to liberate it from Islamic State rule, as airstrikes pounded rebel-held districts in Aleppo, killing 15 civilians and damaging three hospitals, opposition activists and a U.N. agency said.

BEIRUT —Thousands of civilians fled a northern Syrian town Wednesday in anticipation of a final push by U.S.-backed forces to liberate it from Islamic State rule, as airstrikes pounded rebel-held districts in Aleppo, killing 15 civilians and damaging three hospitals, opposition activists and a U.N. agency said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have all but encircled Manbij, a key waypoint on an IS 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 IS 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 IS 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 U.S.-led airstrikes, and the U.S. has embedded 300 Special Forces troops with it, though Washington says they are there in an advisory capacity.

Haj Mansour said IS 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 Independent Doctors Association, which describes itself as a cross-border Syrian humanitarian organization providing health care to Aleppo, said on its Twitter account that an airstrike hit the children’s hospital, which it runs, destroying one floor.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner condemned the hospital attacks in comments to reporters Wednesday. “The fact that the regime is once again targeting medical facilities is unconscionable and should be strongly condemned,” he said.

Just seven hospitals are functional in the city’s rebel-held quarters, serving 350,000 residents, according to Physicians for Human Rights. The group quoted Al Hakim’s director as saying staff had feared the hospital would eventually be struck.

“Today is that day,” said the director, who would not reveal his real name out of safety concerns. “The nurses were running to the basement carrying the babies.”

Over the past two days, government forces have pounded 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 neighbourhood.

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 grey dust is lying face down on a street littered with debris. The videos appeared authentic and correspond to AP reporting.

The Observatory said 10 civilians were killed in the strike, 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 23 MSF-supported medical staff were killed and 58 wounded in aerial bombing and shelling attacks on 63 MSF-supported and run health structures in 2015. It says 12 facilities were completely destroyed.

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 centre, 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 Islamic State siege on their stronghold of Marea, reopening the road linking the town to the Turkish border, activists said. The Observatory said IS withdrew from several villages near Marea, redeploying fighters to Manbij.

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