BEIRUT — A suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State extremist group Wednesday has killed 19 people, including U.S. troops, in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, a war monitor reported.
The U.S. military confirmed in a statement emailed to dpa that two U.S. troops were killed and three U.S. soldiers were injured. The statement said a Department of Defense civilian employee and a contractor supporting the department also were killed, but didn’t identify them as Americans.
“Initial reports indicate an explosion caused the casualties, and the incident is under investigation,” the statement said.
President Donald Trump has been “fully briefed,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
In addition to the Americans, the attack also killed civilians and members of the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led rebel group, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based Observatory initially said the blast was caused by a car bomb, but later said that a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a restaurant in the center of Manbij, where the U.S.-led coalition has military bases.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack and said the bomber had targeted a patrol of coalition troops and allied Kurdish militiamen.
Backed by the U.S., the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) seized Manbij from Islamic State in 2016.
Ankara considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) waging an insurgency within Turkey.
The SDF, which is part of the YPG militia, captured much of the Syrian territory once held by Islamic State, including its former de-facto capital of Raqqah.
In December, Turkey threatened to enter Manbij, but halted its operations following a U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from Syria.
Trump surprised his own military leaders, allies and members of Congress when he announced the withdrawal, saying Islamic State had been defeated in Syria.
Speaking in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence repeated the claim.
“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence said, referring to Islamic State. But he added that the U.S. “will stay in the region” to make sure that the terrorist group “does not rear its ugly head again.”
Wednesday’s attack came hours after the SDF rejected a “safe zone” that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would establish in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
Manbij would be outside the “security zone,” Turkish state news Anadolu said Wednesday, as it published a map of the area starting at the pro-Turkish rebel-controlled border town of Jarabulus and extending to the Iraqi border.
The zone would be 285 miles long and 20 miles wide, Anadolu said, also including important Syrian Kurdish cities such as Kobane.
Sohanook Deebo, a senior SDF council member, rejected the safe zone, saying it would be “a new invasion.”
The SDF would only welcome a buffer zone in the region if set up under the U.N. umbrella and approved by the Security Council to “preserve the unity of Syria and prevent any infiltration by terrorists,” Deebo told dpa.
Erdogan said Tuesday that Turkey planned to establish a “buffer zone” after discussing the issue with Trump by phone.
Erdogan said the zone aimed to provide security and stem the flow of migrants into Turkey and would be created with “logistic and financial” support from U.S. coalition forces.
In response, Syria accused Turkey of sponsoring “terrorism” and vowed to defend its unity against “any form of aggression and occupation,” the state’s SANA news agency reported.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, said the optimal approach would be to transfer control of all Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Syrian armed forces and Syrian administrative structures.
Russia has formed a delicate partnership with anti-Assad Turkey, a U.S. ally, as they seek to maintain a fragile cease-fire in northern Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan are scheduled to meet next week in Moscow to discuss the rebel-held Idlib region in northern Syria, on the Turkish border, Lavrov said.
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