The attack, which Islamic State said had been carried out by one of its followers, also killed more than a dozen civilians and Kurdish militia members, according to local reports. Three U.S. service members were among the wounded, according to the Pentagon.
“Initial reports indicate an explosion caused the casualties, and the incident is under investigation,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Syria, said in a statement.
The attack comes after President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw troops from the nation based on his claim that Islamic State had been all but vanquished.
Manbij is controlled by a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which is backed by the U.S. and has been conducting joint patrols with American troops in the city.
It was during one of these patrols that the Islamic State attacker, nicknamed Abu Yassin al-Shami according to a statement by the extremist group, approached a group of U.S.-led coalition personnel and Kurdish militants gathered near a restaurant about 1 p.m. local time and detonated a suicide belt.
Islamic State claimed nine coalition personnel were killed or wounded, along with a number of Kurdish fighters.
Local media outlet Hawar News quoted officials in Manbij saying a number of YPG fighters as well as 13 civilians were killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitor that is based in Britain but employs a network of activists in Syria, put the death toll at 16.
The bombing occurred about the same time Vice President Mike Pence was repeating Trump’s claim that Islamic State was defeated.
“Thanks to the leadership of this commander in chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces we’re now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria. … We are bringing our troops home,” Pence said in a speech to a group of U.S. ambassadors at the State Department, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence added, referring to Islamic State’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria that it referred to as the Islamic caliphate.
Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, tweeted at about the same time as his speech that he had “been briefed on the situation in Syria” and expressed condolences “to the loved ones of the fallen.”
Hours later, Pence’s Twitter account posted a statement condemning the attack but stating that “we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities” and would never allow the “remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate.”
Hawar News broadcast a video depicting the moment of the blast. It shows people walking through a marketplace area in the center of Manbij when an explosion blasts out of one of the storefronts.
Two pedestrians, engulfed in the flames of the blast, quickly fall to the ground while another one approaching the restaurant turns around and runs away.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had been briefed on the incident.
“We will continue to monitor the ongoing situation in Syria,” she said.
Activists reported a heavy security presence in the immediate aftermath of the attack, with helicopters arriving near the area to evacuate casualties while a joint U.S.-French investigative team cordoned off the site of the explosion.
“The restaurant is in the center of town, and it’s normally a crowded area,” said Abu Ahmad, an activist in Manbij. He gave a nickname for reasons of security.
Last month, Trump ordered the abrupt withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 troops in Syria, a process that the Pentagon said has begun with the removal of equipment but could take months to complete.
Trump’s advisers are seeking an agreement with Turkey to protect Kurdish militias in northeast Syria, which Turkey has threatened to attack once the U.S. forces depart.
Trump’s decision, taken against the recommendations of many of his foreign policy and military advisors, would leave the Kurds to face Turkey, which views the YPG as a proxy force for the Kurdish insurgency it has been fighting for decades.
Many have criticized the move as an outright abandonment of what has been a dependable U.S. ally in the fight against the extremist group. Others say that it would give Islamic State the space it needs to reconstitute itself after losing all of the territories it once held in its grip.
Yet it’s unclear how Wednesday’s bombing would affect the pace of the withdrawal, with Trump changing the timeline of the pullout in various statements over the last week.
Another question is who is to blame for the infiltration of an Islamic State fighter into Manbij, a city protected by the coalition as well as the YPG, with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels as well as Syrian government troops on its perimeter.
In a statement, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “Today’s deadly bombing targeting our troops in Syria is a reminder that ISIS still has the capacity to carry out attacks.”
“I strongly urge the president to forcefully respond and ensure we do not withdraw our troops until ISIS is completely destroyed,” McCaul said.
(Bulos reported from Baghdad and Cloud from Washington.)
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