Thousands of jubilant Syrian civilians returned Saturday to the ruined northern city of Manbij, a day after U.S.-backed fighters drove the last Islamic State extremists from their stronghold near the Turkish border.
Video from Kurdistan 24 television showed scores of vehicles making their way through rubble-strewn streets. Then came crowds of men, women and children, returning on foot from the countryside, where they took refuge while fighters from the Syria Democratic Forces fought to liberate the once-tranquil city.
Smiling men cut off their beards and women burned black niqab veils, reversing rules imposed by Islamic State fighters during the time they occupied the area. Women hugged fighters from the SDF, and others celebrated by smoking cigarettes, another activity banned by extremists.
Scores of children waved to cameras recording the spectacle.
A spokesman for a local military council allied with the SDF told Reuters that "today is the first day that life is returning to normal."
IS abandoned the city
Extremists abandoned the city Friday, retreating toward the IS-controlled border town of Jarabulus along with nearly two thousand civilians.
It was not immediately clear whether those non-combatants exited Manbij as hostages or whether they had left voluntarily. But witnesses said many of the civilians had returned to the city in the hours after the extremists left.
Manbij was a strategically important link in supply lines to Islamic State's headquarters in Syria in Raqqa. Analysts said its loss is a major setback for the extremists, who have sought to establish an Islamist "caliphate" in large parts of Iraq and Syria.
While Manbij was occupied, U.S. officials say, it also was the place where Islamic State members processed foreigners trying to join the extremist movement.
The SDF was formed with U.S. backing in 2015, when Arab fighters joined forces with powerful Kurdish militias. With U.S. air cover, SDF fighters moved on Manbij in May, as part of a strategy to expel extremists from their strongholds near the Turkish border.
U.S. defense officials said Friday that IS fighters planted explosives in hundreds of buildings, including "key pieces of civic infrastructure," before they fled from Manbij.
Coalition officials also voiced concern over the possible presence of Islamic State sleeper cells, whose fighters masquerading as civilians could stage surprise attacks later against SDF forces.
In photos: Manbij residents return after IS driven outView full gallery