Residents of the Syrian city of Manbij in northern Aleppo province tell Al-Shorfa they are suffering under a total siege imposed on them by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) as an operation to liberate the city gains force.
"The campaign for Manbij began on Tuesday (May 31st)," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
"Over the past 24 hours, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized control of nine villages west of the Euphrates," he said, advancing to within 18 kilometres of the city.
SDF military adviser Nasser Haj Mansour said fighters from the Arab-Kurd alliance were heading from the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates towards Manbij.
"The clashes are fierce and intense," he said.
Meanwhile, the coalition announced Wednesday it had conducted 18 airstrikes near Manbij, hitting an ISIL headquarters, communication towers, six tactical units and eight ISIL fighting positions, among other targets.
Residents under blockade
Inside the city, ISIL has banned all forms of communication with the outside world and has imposed exorbitant fees on shops, farmers and transportation, which has led to a sharp increase in prices, residents told Al-Shorfa.
"The situation is extremely dire," said Manbij resident Mustafa Khalid, who asked to use a pseudonym out of concern for his safety.
"Residents are living their darkest days since the outbreak of the events in Syria in 2011," he told Al-Shorfa.
ISIL has imposed a blockade on Manbij and its surrounding rural areas and is prohibiting residents from leaving, Khalid said.
The region is densely populated as thousands of Syrians have been displaced there from other areas, he said, noting that there are 400,000 residents in the city at present and about 500,000 in its hinterland.
Residents are only allowed to move between Manbij and ISIL's stronghold of al-Raqa, he said, as surrounding areas are controlled by other opposition factions and ISIL fires on anyone suspected of heading to these places.
The group has prohibited residents from using Turkish telephone lines, which are the only ones operating in the region, he added, and has imposed a fine of up to 400,000 Syrian pounds ($1,819) per violation.
It also has permanently banned Internet café owners from using the Internet, Khalid said, with members of the group's "religious police" raiding shops and homes to look for non-compliant residents.
Earlier this year, the all-female al-Hesba brigade began searching women in the streets and markets, he said, and ISIL imposed a curfew from midnight until 7 a.m. and started arresting violators.
ISIL fee hikes raise prices
ISIL has raised the fees it collects from shopkeepers in Manbij to 30,000 Syrian pounds ($136) per month, said local trader Fahd Suleiman, who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear for his safety.
This is in addition to other fees the group levies on regular and commercial transport activity, requiring taxi owners to pay at least 2,000 pounds ($9) per month and transport trucks to pay 5,000 ($23) per month, he told Al-Shorfa.
"Farmers were not spared from taxes, as they have to pay 11,000 pounds ($50) per hectare per season," he added.
ISIL also has imposed strict controls on irrigation channels, allowing only those who pay the set fee to use them, Suleiman said.
These increases caused prices to rise to unprecedented levels, with the price of bread rising to 300 pounds ($1.36), a kilogramme of sugar to 12,000 pounds ($55) and a kilogramme of meat to 20,000 pounds ($91), he said.
Suleiman said the group also has shut down money transfer centres, which has left many without income due to their reliance on remittances from family members living abroad.
"Obviously, the group is taking revenge on residents because they alone stood up to it and rejected its presence publicly," he said, referring to the ongoing protests in Manbij since November that express anger over ISIL's actions.
"The group’s elements consider everyone to be an agent of the international coalition, SDF or other factions fighting ISIL, and they deal with them on this basis," he said.
Preparations to liberate Manbij
Since coalition airstrikes against ISIL have intensified in the area, the group has started moving its posts and housing into the city, Suleiman said.
This puts the residents’ lives at risk, he added.
In April, the Manbij Military Council, comprising seven different factions of the SDF, led by a 13-member command council, was formed to defend the people of the city against ISIL, said council platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim.
The battle to liberate Manbij has several objectives, he told Al-Shorfa.
"The first objective is to rid the citizens of the injustice they are being subjected to," he said. "The second concerns the strategic importance of the region, as liberating it would completely isolate al-Raqa, which is connected to eastern and northern rural Aleppo through Manbij."
Liberating Manbij will pave the way for the complete elimination of ISIL, or will at least confine it to al-Raqa, Ibrahim added.
Work is under way with the SDF, and communication is being established with all ethnic components, including the Kurds, Turkmans and Arab tribes to co-ordinate military operations, he said.