The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had allowed for around 100-200 jihadists to travel north towards Turkey after they used human shields to flee a key city in Syria, a U.S. official said on Aug. 16.
But as it became clear that U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would re-capture the city last week, some 100-200 jihadists fled in cars and trucks, Baghdad-based coalition spokesman Colonel Chris Garver told reporters in a video call, AFP reported.
Unlike in Fallujah in Iraq, where local and coalition forces destroyed about 175 ISIL vehicles as they fled that city, the SDF outside Manbij did not open fire on outgoing cars.
It is not clear whether the militants left under a pre-arranged agreement between the SDF and the ISIL fighters. During the offensive, the SDF had offered fighters a safe route to leave the town but they refused.
“Civilians were observed in the convoy intermingling with fighters in every vehicle,” Garver said.
“We have repeatedly mentioned the care that our partnered forces were taking to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage, so the partnered forces on the ground did not engage the convoy,” he added.
Garver said the coalition was tracking those ISIL fighters but declined to elaborate, saying only that they went north and split up. Parts of the Syrian border with Turkey are still controlled by ISIL.
“We’re keeping track of them. I don’t want to talk too much about that. It’s an ongoing operation,” he said.
A U.S. military official, who spoke on condition anonymity because he was not entitled to publicly speak on the issue, told the Associated Press that some of the ISIL fighters may have already made their way into Turkey, but many are still in Syria.
Garver said those in the vehicles were likely a mix of ISIL fighters, civilian hostages and people traveling willingly with the jihadists, such as family members.
“We had to treat them all as non-combatants. We didn’t shoot. We kept watching,” he told reporters.
Hundreds of the civilians from the convoy were released on Aug. 13 and others escaped.
Garver also noted that ISIL forces had apparently repeatedly tried to put civilians in harm’s way during the SDF operation to free Manbij.
“They kept throwing civilians to basically walk into the line of fire, trying to get them shot, to use that potentially as propaganda, we think,” he said.
The jihadists, who have suffered a string of losses in Syria and Iraq, have often staged mass abductions when they come under pressure to relinquish territory they hold.