Dodging mines, sniper fire near the IS frontline

Kaber Saghir (Syria) (AFP) – Slumped against a tree trunk in northern Syria, the bullet-riddled body of an Islamic State group fighter still wears a suicide belt he did not have time to detonate.

The smell of his decomposing body fills the air near the frontline, as a US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance inches closer to retaking the nearby jihadist bastion of Manbij.

Air planes from a US-led coalition dart overhead, as an AFP reporter hurriedly follows an alliance fighter down dirt tracks hidden among olive trees.

The anti-IS fighter directs the reporter to avoid land mines planted by the jihadists in the fields of the village of Kaber Saghir, around five kilometres (three miles) south of Manbij.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are fighting IS on the outskirts of the jihadist-held city, after they encircled it last week with support from coalition air strikes.

“Watch out! The planes are about to hit a Daesh vehicle,” an SDF fighter nearby cries into his walkie-talkie, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

A few minutes later, three loud explosions resound west of Manbij — held by IS since 2014 — and a column of black smoke rises up into the sky.

Sand bags are piled at the entrance of Kaber Saghir to protect SDF fighters from IS artillery fire, and the village’s one-storey houses are peppered with holes.

– ‘Human shields’ –

Outside one house, a resident has posted a sign on a chair that reads: “This home does not belong to Daesh. Keep out!”

Dressed in a sand-coloured uniform, field commander Adnan Abu Amjad steps out of a four-wheel drive smeared with mud.

“We have broken Daesh’s first lines of defence… but we are advancing slowly because there are civilians,” says Abu Amjad, who leads an SDF component of fighters from the besieged town.

Tens of thousands of residents were trapped inside Manbij after alliance forces surrounded the jihadist-held city last week — although more than 1,000 managed to flee with SDF help.

“Daesh are using civilians as human shields and it’s impeding our advance,” the commander says.

The alliance has swept through agricultural land since it launched its advance towards Manbij on May 31, seizing more than 100 villages along the way, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.

France last week said it had deployed special forces in Syria to advise the SDF in their fight against the jihadists.

“The French forces are providing logistical and technical support… We thank them as well as the international coalition,” Abu Amjad says.

The coalition launched air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq in 2014, after the jihadist group declared a cross-border “caliphate” there earlier that year.

Outside the village, the SDF fighter tells the AFP reporter to run to avoid IS sniper and rocket fire.

– ‘Lack of food’ –

Nearby, SDF fighters monitor the movement of IS fighters through holes in a building wall.

Sultan Hassan, an Arab fighter, says he thinks the alliance will retake Manbij in the “coming days”.

“The coalition strikes on IS positions are very precise,” he says, adding that fighting has been ongoing to the east of the village near its wheat silos.

Another Kurdish fighter, who chose to remain anonymous, says he fears for the lives of his relatives inside Manbij.

“They’re suffering from lack of food because IS takes it to give it to its fighters, he says.

But “from what we overhear on the walkie-talkies, Daesh fighters are about to collapse and have lost hope of staying in the town.”

The alliance dealt a major blow to the jihadist group when it encircled Manbij last week.

The advance severed a key supply route used by IS from the Turkish border to its de facto Syrian capital, Raqa city.

In the village of Abu Qulqul, around 15 kilometres southeast of Manbij, an SDF fighter leads a man with his hands tied onto the back of a pick-up truck.

“He’s a member of Daesh,” an alliance fighter says, as the man is blindfolded and driven off to be interrogated.

“We were tipped off that he was sending information to Daesh via the Internet.”