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US-backed force says it captured suspects in bombing that killed 4 Americans

From Left: Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent, 35, of New York; Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Fla.; and Former Navy SEAL Scott A. Wirtz, of St. Louis, Mo.

By STARS AND STRIPES AND WIRE REPORTS Published: March 19, 2019

BAGHOUZ, Syria — U.S.-backed Syrian forces captured Islamic State fighters believed involved in the January blast that killed four Americans — the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces entered the country in 2015, a spokesman said.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Shannon M. Kent, 35, of Pine Plains, N.Y., Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Fla.; Defense Intelligence Agency civilian Scott A. Wirtz, 42, of St. Louis, Mo., and interpreter Ghadir Taher, 27, of East Point, Ga., were among 16 people killed by a suicide bomber at a restaurant in Manbij in northern Syria.

The suspects were captured Tuesday when U.S.-backed forces took control of an ISIS encampment in the village of Baghouz, the last sliver of territory in Syria held by the extremists, Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said in a Twitter post.

He said the suspects were captured following technical surveillance by the Kurdish-led group. He did not elaborate on the number of suspects.

“This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight,” Bali said in a Twitter post. He said hundreds of wounded and sick militants were captured and have been evacuated to nearby military hospitals for treatment.

The servicemembers were at a restaurant near a crowded market for a meeting with local leaders, U.S. Central Command said after the January attack. Members of the Manbij Military Council, which has controlled the city since it was liberated from ISIS in mid-2016, were also reportedly among the other dozen people killed in the blast.

Kent, who left a husband and two sons, was the first female U.S. servicemember killed in action since December 2015, and the first killed in action in the anti-ISIS campaign. She was a cryptologist and cancer survivor who had lobbied on Capitol Hill for new protections for servicemembers and was slated to start a graduate program this year.

Farmer, whose survivors include his wife and four children, had served in the 5th Special Forces Group for most of his nearly 14-year career and had served five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his Army career, he earned awards including the Bronze Star Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal with the combat “C” device, the Army Commendation medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters and a Combat Infantry Badge.

Wirtz, a Navy veteran, is the first known Defense Department civilian killed in action in what has been called Operation Inherent Resolve since 2014. He spent most of his Navy career from 1998 to 2005 assigned to the Coronado, Calif.-based SEAL Team 5, where he specialized as a sniper. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and also deployed to locations in Africa, the Philippines and South Korea, according to his mother.He joined the DIA in 2017 as an operations support specialist, charged with overseeing operations to collect human intelligence. He served three deployments to the Middle East in the role, according to his DIA biography.

Taher was born and reared in the Syrian capital of Damascus and became a naturalized citizen after she immigrated to the United States with her brother in 2001. She joined a company that provides linguists to the U.S. military after studying at Georgia State University.

The ISIS-held village of Baghouz is the last pocket of territory in Syria controlled by the extremist group, which once held a vast area of Syria and Iraq, calling it an Islamic “caliphate.” Baghouz’s fall would mark the end of the devastating four-year campaign to end IS’s hold on any kind of territory, although it maintains scattered presence and sleeper cells in both countries.

The battle for Baghouz — including the encampment, a collection of tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels — has dragged on for weeks amid an unexpected exodus of civilians from the area.

U.S.-backed forces have stopped speculating when the battle may finally be over. Commanders say they don’t know how many more ISIS fighters may still be left, hiding in tunnels beneath the war-scarred village.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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