Residents flee IS-held Syria town as forces close in
DAMASCUS - Thousands of civilians on Tuesday fled a key town along the Islamic State group's supply lifeline in northern Syria as US-backed fighters closed in from three sides.
The offensive on the town of Manbij is one of two major assaults on the jihadist supply line from the Syrian-Turkish border to IS's bastion of Raqa.
The Syrian Democratic Forces alliance began its offensive against Manbij just over a week ago, crossing the Euphrates River and pushing west towards the town.
"We have surrounded Manbij from three sides and operations are progressing well," said Sherfan Darwish, who is leading the SDF offensive.
"Every day, we are liberating villages and the only route open to IS now is towards Aleppo city" to the west, Darwish told AFP by phone.
Overnight, SDF forces edged to within five kilometres (three miles) of Manbij from the north, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
SDF fighters had pushed to within two kilometres of the town to the south and around seven kilometres to the east.
"Daesh has begun allowing civilians to flee towards the west, whereas before they had banned anyone from leaving," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
He said some were in cars but many were carrying their belongings and walking along unpaved roads as IS fighters remained in the town.
- Vital supply route -
Manbij, in Syria's border province of Aleppo, 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 gaining international infamy by 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.
The US-led coalition battling IS in Iraq and Syria has carried out heavy air strikes to support the fight for Manbij.
The IS supply route leads from Jarabulus on the border south through Manbij and winds southeast along the Euphrates through the town of Tabqa and on to Raqa city.
Washington, which has more than 200 special forces troops deployed to back the SDF, has said some 3,000 Arab fighters are taking part in the assault, supported by around 500 Kurds.
The Observatory has said that of the 4,000 fighters it estimates are taking part, most are actually Kurdish.
The SDF advance on Manbij has cut the route to Jarabulus to the north and to Raqa province to the south, Darwish told AFP.
Tabqa, another IS-held transit town which also lies near Syria's largest dam, is also under attack on two fronts.
SDF fighters began advancing on Tabqa last week, but are still 60 kilometres (40 miles) away from the riverside town.
- IS reinforces Tabqa -
Russian-backed regime fighters have steadily advanced from the town's southwest, and are just over 30 kilometres away, a Syrian military source told AFP.
"We are at the Abu Al-Alaj point, and have blocked a Daesh counter-offensive on our military positions," the source said.
He said government forces had not seized any new territory there over the past 24 hours as they seek to reinforce positions they already hold.
The Observatory said on Tuesday IS had sent a convoy of weapons and about 100 fighters to reinforce Tabqa in preparation for a major battle there.
As fighting for Tabqa and Manbij intensifies, it appears the battle for IS's de facto capital of Raqa city -- which would be a much more symbolic victory -- has taken a backseat.
The US-backed SDF's offensive north of the Raqa last month began amid much fanfare, but progress appears to have slowed.
Syria's conflict has evolved into a complex war involving foreign powers since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Peace talks to end the five-year war -- which has killed more than 280,000 people and displaced millions -- have stalled and a related ceasefire is in tatters.
Meanwhile, the toll in a wave of air strikes on a market in eastern Syria has risen to 37 civilians, including 11 children, the Observatory said on Tuesday.
The strikes hit a popular market on Monday in the IS-held town of Al-Asharah in Deir Ezzor province.
On the domestic political front, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the new parliament on Tuesday and congratulated MPs on a record turnout in an April general election. The vote was held in government-controlled areas only, and was dismissed both by the opposition and internationally as a sham.
"The Syrian people surprised the world yet again with an unprecedented voter turnout... and an unprecedented number of candidates," Assad said.
The slender head of state was shown approaching the podium to cheers of support from lawmakers.
It was unclear if the broadcast was live or a pre-recorded address from earlier this week.
Assad's last address to parliament was in June 2012, just after general elections in May of that year.