Fam­i­lies flee­ing Raqa say air strikes bring heavy toll

Oman Daily Observer - - FRONT PAGE -

RAQA: Air raids by US coali­tion war­planes have in­ten­si­fied in re­cent days as Kur­dish and Arab seek to drive sur­rounded IS fight­ers from their last strongholds in Syria’s Raqa — but the toll on civil­ians has been se­vere.

Hun­dreds of civil­ians fled the city on Thurs­day, many wounded and mal­nour­ished after be­ing trapped for months by fight­ing be­tween IS and the US-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF).

Those who fled said the sheer in­ten­sity of the bom­bard­ment ap­peared to have made fight­ers shift their po­si­tions, re­treat or hide un­der­ground, giv­ing civil­ians a win­dow in which to es­cape.

Ab­dul­lah Ali’s burns were still raw from an air strike that brought down his build­ing and killed his en­tire fam­ily a week ago in cen­tral Raqqa.

“My wife, mum, dad, all 14 peo­ple in my fam­ily were killed. Their bod­ies are trapped un­der rub­ble,” the 24-yearold said, sit­ting out­side a mosque on Raqqa’s out­skirts.

Ali’s neigh­bour Abdo Hus­sein said more than 50 peo­ple were in the build­ing when the air strike hit. Just a hand­ful sur­vived and 13 bod­ies had been pulled out, he said.

The of­fen­sive to drive IS out of Raqqa, its de facto Syr­ian cap­i­tal which it seized in 2014, has long out­lasted ini­tial pre­dic­tions by SDF of­fi­cials who said ahead of a fi­nal as­sault in June that it could take just weeks.

The SDF said last week the city could be de­clared cap­tured in the com­ing days.

There are still sev­eral hun­dred fight­ers in the city and thou­sands of res­i­dents, the coali­tion says, many of them be­lieved to be held hostage by IS in a hos­pi­tal and nearby sta­dium.

“Peo­ple had tried to es­cape be­fore but were shot at by IS. I even saw them kill a two-year-old child,” Um Moussa, 38, said, sit­ting in­side the mosque.

“This morn­ing they didn’t seem to be around, or weren’t fir­ing.

“My son saw hordes of peo­ple leav­ing so we de­cided to go for it. I’d been sleep­ing fully dressed — we were ready to flee at the first chance,” she said, wear­ing black robes and a face veil re­quired un­der IS’s strict laws.

But weak­en­ing the fight­ers with air power has come at a high cost in civil­ian lives, she and oth­ers said.

“Yes­ter­day four en­tire fam­i­lies were killed in our area. It’s strike after strike.” All those who es­caped on Thurs­day came from a district near the sta­dium. They said many build­ings had been hit as IS fight­ers fired from them.

“Each build­ing has dozens of civil­ians in it, so of course many have died,” said Hus­sein. Air strikes were pre­cise, of­ten tak­ing out a sin­gle build­ing with­out dam­ag­ing those next door, but fight­ers of­ten man­aged to leave be­fore the mis­siles hit, he said.


Syr­ian civil­ians gather on the west­ern front after flee­ing the cen­tre of Raqa.

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