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US-backed Syrian fighters take Manbij city, Islamic State's gateway to Europe

Some Syrians in the town celebrated by cutting off Islamic State-required beards and burning burqas, while others took part in previously prohibited activities like smoking and dancing.

by Tess Owen
Aug 13 2016, 1:40pm

A woman smokes as she rests after she was evacuated with others by the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters from an Islamic State-controlled neighborhood of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 12, 2016. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

Scenes of tearful relief and joy emerged on Saturday from the northern Syrian city of Manbij, as residents celebrated their liberation from two years of Islamic State rule after US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters ousted the group's fighters following a months-long siege.

Some residents lit cigarettes and danced — two activities prohibited under the violent Islamist extremists' reign — and some men helped each other shave their beards as women set fire to the heavy black burqas, which IS required them to wear.

After a 73-day battle, the coalition of militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), were able to drive away the remaining 100 fighters — and freed the 2,000 hostages who IS were holding in the city center as human shields. The SDF were backed in their offensive against IS by US-coalition airstrikes.

"The city is now fully under our control but we are undertaking sweeping operations," Sharfan Darwish of the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council told Reuters, adding that militant sleeper cells in the city continued to be a source of concern.

One resident showed a reporter from Reuters the place where civilians were beheaded. "For anything or using the excuse that he did not believe [in god], they put him and cut his head off," the man said.

"I feel joy," another woman told Reuters. "I am dreaming. I cannot believe it, I cannot believe it. Things I saw no one saw."

Related: Syrian women burned a burka after being freed from the Islamic State

Manbij, which is within the Aleppo governorate, fell to IS in 2014. The liberation of Manbij isn't just a victory for the Syrian's who were forced to live under IS' brutal rule — it also deals a major strategic blow to the militant group. Because of its proximity to the Turkish border, Manbij was a crucial route for supplies and the transfer of foreign fighters in and out of Europe. It also became the hub for trafficking antiquities and artifacts looted from archaeological sites, such as the ancient city of Palmyra.

"After the liberation of Manbij, IS members won't be able to freely travel to and from Europe anymore," Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim told the BBC.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, UK-based monitoring group, reported that about 500 cars fled from Manbij with IS fighters and civilians, heading north towards Jarablus, an IS-occupied town near the Turkish border.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessown

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VICE News
ISIS
Islamic State
Syria
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war and conflict
syrian civil war
Manbij
Syrian Democratic Forces
Jarablus