Clashes in north Syria town after IS ignores offer to leave
BEIRUT (AP) -- Sporadic clashes between Islamic Sate militants and U.S.-backed fighters erupted on Friday in a northern, IS-held Syrian town after the extremists ignored a 48-hour offer from the day before to leave the besieged town without a fight, opposition activists and a Kurdish official said.
The fighting is forcing many civilians to flee, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 200 civilians fled the town of Manbij in the morning hours. A 20-year-old woman among those fleeing died when she stepped on a land mine while trying to escape with her children, the Observatory said.
A Facebook page that covers Manbij posted two photographs of a few dozen people, mostly women and children, saying they "risked their lives" to flee the town's southern neighborhood of Hazawneh. The photographs appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.
Members of the predominantly Kurdish U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces have been on the offensive in Manbij for weeks, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
On Thursday, the Manbij Military Council - part of the SDF - said IS fighters were given 48 hours to leave the town with their "individual weapons," saying this was their last opportunity to leave alive.
Sherfan Darwish of the SDF said the extremists did not respond to the offer and that sporadic clashes erupted anew on Friday. The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the U.S.-led coalition carried about 20 airstrikes on the center of Manbij on Friday.
Manbij is an IS hub and lies on a key supply route to the Islamic State group's de facto capital of Raqqa. If Manbij is captured by the U.S.-backed fighters, it will be the biggest strategic defeat for IS in Syria since July 2015, when the extremist group lost the border town of Tal Abyad.
In Geneva, spokesman Jens Laerke of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said a convoy carrying assistance for 32,000 people arrived Friday in the hard-to-reach town of Halat al-Madeh in the central province of Hama.
"This is the first inter-agency convoy to Hama in 2016," said Laerke, adding that however, the Syrian government had removed some "surgical and certain medical items" from the cargo.
The United Nations says there are nearly half a million people in besieged areas in Syria and an estimated 4.5 million Syrians in so-called hard-to-reach areas.
In Moscow, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on a recent visit to Russia reiterated the West's stance that Syrian President Bashar Assad must leave power.
Moscow, a major Assad ally, disagrees with that, fearing a worse turmoil if the Syrian president were to go.
"Kerry ... said we need to agree first that Assad goes," Lavrov said on Friday. "Who can guarantee that what happened to Libya won't happen to Syria?"
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.