Thousands of civilians fled a stronghold of the Islamic State group in northern Syria, almost surrounded by US-backed fighters, seeking to cut a key supply lifeline for the jihadists.
The Arab-Kurdish offensive on the town of Manbij is one of two major assaults on the route IS uses to send in more fighters, weapons and money from the Turkish border to its main Syrian bastion of Raqa.
“We have surrounded Manbij from three sides and operations are progressing well,” said Sherfan Darwish, who is leading the offensive of the Syrian Democratic Forces launched just over a week ago.
“Every day, we are liberating villages and the only route open to IS now is towards Aleppo city” to the west, Darwish said.
The SDF is now within five kilometres of Manbij from the north, two kilometres from the south and about seven kilometres from the east, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Daesh has begun allowing civilians to flee towards the west,” some in cars but many carrying their belongings on foot, the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
About 20,000 people are still living in Manbij, which had a pre-war population of about 120,000 — mostly Arabs, but about a quarter Syrian Kurds.
IS overran the town in early 2014, just months before declaring a cross-border “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
The “Manbij pocket” was the only remaining section of territory used by IS to smuggle recruits or funds from Turkey across the border.