Several people, including civilians and US troops, were killed after a blast struck near a US-led coalition patrol in the northern Syrian town of Manbij on Wednesday, less than a month after US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw US troops from the war-torn country.
The US Department of Defense said two US soldiers, one Pentagon civilian and one contractor were killed in the attack. War monitors and local activists also reported that a number of civilians had been killed.
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A website linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility, saying an attacker used an explosive vest to carry out the blast, which occurred near a restaurant in the city.
The attack calls into question Trump’s claim that ISIL has been defeated in Syria – his stated reason for pulling 2,000 US troops from the country.
US Vice President Mike Pence repeated the claim on Wednesday after the attack, saying the ISIL “caliphate has crumbled” and the armed group “has been defeated”.
In a statement later in the day, Pence said that he and Trump “condemn the terrorist attack … and our hearts are with the loved ones of the fallen”.
“As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate – not now, not ever,” the statement added.
Videos of Wednesday’s attack released by local activists and news agencies showed a restaurant that suffered extensive damage and a street covered in debris and blood. Several cars were also damaged. Another video showed a helicopter flying over the area. The videos could not be immediately verified.
No timetable for withdrawal
Trump’s withdrawal announcement last month surprised many politicians in Washington as well as Western and Kurdish allies fighting alongside the US against ISIL.
The move prompted US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign, and the top US envoy in the anti-ISIL fight, Brett McGurk, to leave his post earlier than expected.
Trump’s decision was initially expected to be carried out swiftly, but the timetable became vague in the weeks following his announcement.
Last week, the US military began pulling out equipment from the northeast into neighbouring Iraq. No troops are known to have withdrawn yet.
Wednesday’s attack took place in the highly strategic town of Manbij. It is the main town on the westernmost edge of Syrian territory held by the US-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey. Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from ISIL rule in 2016 with help from the US-led coalition. But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey, which views the main US Kurdish ally, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish fighters on its own soil.
The town has been at the centre of tensions in northern Syria, with the militaries of two NATO members, the US and Turkey, on opposing sides.
The two sides began joint patrols around Manbij in November as part of an agreement for easing tensions between the two allies.
US-led coalition forces have been targeted in the area before, although such incidents have been rare.
In March last year, a roadside bomb killed two coalition personnel, an American and UK national, and wounded five in Manbij.