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US-backed fighters take town of Manbij from Isis

US-backed fighters have taken “almost complete control” of an Islamic State stronghold in northern Syria that analysts say is key to the advance to Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, reports claim.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) says that Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly a Kurdish group, are in control of most of the town of Manbij as fighting in northern neighbourhoods and the town’s centre continues.

Separately, the official spokesman of the SDF-allied Manbij military council, Sharfan Darwish, told Reuters that battles were continuing but that about 90% of the city had now been taken from Isis.

The Associated Press quoted Mustafa Bali, a Syria-based Kurdish activist, as saying on Saturday that Isis still held some areas in Manbij, but that it was “a matter of time” before SDF fighters capture the town.

The SDF, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab fighters, launched its campaign two months ago with the backing of US special forces. Victory would drive Isis from its last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.

Fighting for control of the town has taken a tragic toll on civilians. Last month the US announced an inquiry after activists said its warplanes had killed 73 civilians, mostly women and children, after bombing a suburb. The US military later admitted that a separate airstrike around the city may have killed a further 28 civilians.

However, despite warnings that killing so many civilians undermined the fight against Isis, the US rejected calls for a halt to the bombardment, saying that capturing the city is critical to eventually capturing Raqqa.

Located close the Turkish border, Manbij has served as a key transit point along Isis’s supply route to Raqqa, allowing them to transport fighters and equipment in and out of the country.

The SDF launched its offensive on 31 May, encircled the town in early June and surged into it later that month, but its assault was slowed by a fierce Isis fightback using suicide attackers and car bombs.

The SOHR said the SDF “took control of Manbij on Saturday and are combing the city in search of the last remaining jihadists”.

Darwish told AFP that fighting continued in the town. “The battles are continuing near the centre of the town. We are in control of 90% of Manbij,” he said.

Formed in October 2015, the SDF, an alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Circassian militias, has seized swaths of territory in north and north-east Syria from Isis. It claims to be fighting to create a secular, democratic and federal Syria.

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