(CNSNews.com) - In Syria, as the ISIS stronghold of Manbij fell to the U.S.-led coalition last Friday, the U.S. military and its partners on the ground watched as a "pretty significant" convoy of Islamic State fighters drove out of the city.
"Civilians were observed in the convoy intermingled with fighters in every vehicle," Col. Christopher Garver, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters on Tuesday.
"We have repeatedly mentioned the care that our partnered (Syrian) forces were taking to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage, so the partnered forces on the ground did not engage the convoy. The coalition continues to track those Daesh forces. As it's an ongoing operation, we won't discuss the specifics."
Syrian Democratic Forces are now clearing the city of Manbij, looking for "small pockets" of Islamic State fighters. The goal is to make the city safe for civilians agian, Garver said.
He noted that the liberation of Manbij has "significantly impacted" the enemy's communication lines as well as curbing the flow of foreign fighters into and out of ISIS-held territory.
Garver couldn't say exactly how many ISIS fighters managed to escape Manbij in the convoy. He said estimates range from 100 to "a couple hundred." He said the convoy included a "pretty significant number of vehicles," but fewer than 175.
He refused to say where the fighters went: "They didn't all go as a group; I'll say that. When they went north, they didn't all go together and stay together. But I won't talk about specifically where each of the pieces and parts went because I said -- as I said, that's an ongoing operation."
The unknown number of civilians accompanying the fighters have not returned to Manbij. "They're still outside the city and I'll leave it at that," Garver said.
A reporter asked Garvery if the civilians went willingly or unwillingly: "We don't know," he replied. "We anticipate it was probably a mix of both, but we don't have that information. There were some that were being held unwillingly and some that were being held, or that were traveling willingly with them. We don't know that, which is why, you know, we had to treat them all as noncombatants. We didn't shoot. We kept watching. Like I said, there was no opportunity to engage either for the (Syrian-Arab Coalition ) or for us watching it from overhead."
At the end of June, hundreds of Islamic terrorists were killed as they tried to convoy out of the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
On Tuesday, a reporter asked if the enemy was being "adaptive" by putting civilians in the Manbij convoy, knowing that would prevent air strikes.
"Are they an adaptive enemy? Absolutely, we have seen Daesh adapt, change its tactics," Garver said. "We've seen them adjust their tactics in different areas. And certainly, we know Fallujah was an absolute -- and in their words -- disaster for what happened at that time.
Did they learn from that? I don't know why they made the decisions they did inside...Manbij, why Daesh made those decisions inside Manbij. But I can tell you that it looks like they certainly paid attention, and now, we'll adapt and change as well.
"They make -- and as my commander last week described it, we make an action, they react and we have a counter-action to it. So are we concerned that they're going to take human shields? They've been taking human shields all along. This was just a very significant group of them at one time.
"They've tried to introduce all throughout the Manbij fight -- they've tried to introduce civilians into the line of danger. As the SAC forces were closing on the outside of the city, they kept throwing civilians to basically walk into the line of fire, trying to get them shot to use that potentially as propaganda we think.
"So have they placed civilians in harm's way before? Absolutely. Do we anticipate that they'll do it again? Absolutely again. So yes, we'll have to...watch for that. Yes, we'll have to adapt to it. And then we're not going to tell you all the -- you know, the things we want to come up with to react or to counter-act that, but we'll continue to do that as we head toward the battle of Mosul."
On July 1, 2016, the Obama administration announced that it has killed up to 116 civilians in counter-terror attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where the U.S. is not engaged in active, on-the-ground warfare.
The report by National Intelligence Director James Clapper said the U.S. conducted 473 counter-terror strikes, including those by unmanned drones, between January 2009 and December 2015. The attacks killed an estimated 2,372 to 2,581 combatants in those seven years, the report said. Between 64 and 116 non-combatants were killed.
On that same day, July 1, President Obama issued an executive order, noting that "civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of a state's inherent right of self-defense."
He said the U.S. government "shall maintain and promote best practices that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians."