United States-backed rebel forces have captured the city of Manbij from the Islamic State, whose grip on the city lasted more than two years but faltered after months of fighting.
In a “major setback” for the militant group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed group comprised mainly of Kurdish and Arab fighters, gained the city center, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Department of Defense on Friday.
The Islamic State had held the city, which is located approximately 60 miles from Aleppo, since January 2014. After 73 days of fighting, the last of the remaining Islamic State fighters left Friday as rebel forces freed 2,000 people that the Islamic State had used as “human shields,” according to the BBC.
Manbij had served as a location for “recruiting and processing foreign fighters” and a base for sending fighters over the Turkish border, the statement said, citing Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Trowbridge. The city is also located on what was an important supply route for the Islamic State between Turkey and Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.
Residents celebrated the city’s liberation in the streets, many expressing shock and disbelief. “I feel joy and [it is like a] dream I am dreaming. I cannot believe it, I cannot believe it. Things I saw no one saw,” one woman said, according to Reuters.
Before the Syrian revolution began in 2011, approximately 120,000 people lived in the city. When the Islamic State captured Manbij in 2014, it dismantled the civil institutions that had governed life in the city, including a local council and police force, according to Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-wrote “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” with Leila Al-Shami.
“They were really running things themselves very well and quite democratically, and then ISIS took over,” he said. Many activists or participants in local government “had to run or were killed.”
Residents have described harsh rule under the militant group, who they said instituted a ban on shaving, strict dress rules for women, public prayer checks and a pattern of public executions.
See more images from the city’s recapture below.
Daniel Moritz-Rabson contributed reporting.