Raqqa sur­vivors say their en­tire fam­i­lies were wiped out in air strikes by coali­tion

Hun­dreds of wounded, mal­nour­ished civil­ians flee city af­ter be­ing trapped for months

Gulf News - - MIDDLE EAST -

Air raids by US coali­tion war­planes have in­ten­si­fied in re­cent days as Kur­dish and Arab mili­tias seek to drive sur­rounded Daesh ter­ror­ists from their last strongholds in Syria’s Raqqa — 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 Daesh and the US-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF).

Those who fled said the sheer in­ten­sity of the bom­bard­ment ap­peared to have made mil­i­tants 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-year-old said, sit­ting out­side a mosque on Raqqa’s out­skirts.

Ali’s neigh­bour Abd Hus­sain 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 Daesh 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 it could take just weeks.

Many held hostage

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

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

“Peo­ple had tried to es­cape be­fore but were shot at by Daesh. I even saw them kill a two-year-old child,” Umm Mousa, 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.

But weak­en­ing the mil­i­tants 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 Daesh ter­ror­ists fired from them.

“Each build­ing has dozens of civil­ians in it, so of course many have died,” said Hus­sain. Res­i­dents de­scribed mis­er­able liv­ing con­di­tions and lack of food, wa­ter and med­i­cal aid with the re­main­ing ar­eas Daesh con­trols com­pletely cut off.

“Daesh have clin­ics but it’s to treat their fighters, not us,” Hus­sain said.

Umm Mousa said she, her hus­band and eight chil­dren had slept in their cel­lar by night to hide from the bom­bard­ment and the ter­ror­ists, but that Daesh was now de­lib­er­ately avoid­ing in­ter­ac­tion with res­i­dents. Talks on se­cur­ing safe pas­sage for civil­ians from the last Daesh-held neigh­bour­hoods of Syria’s Raqqa have stopped, a city of­fi­cial close to the dis­cus­sions told jour­nal­ists yes­ter­day.

City of­fi­cials and tribal lead­ers had been work­ing last week to ne­go­ti­ate the safe exit of peo­ple trapped inside mil­i­tant-held ar­eas.

The source said that some civil­ians had been safely brought out dur­ing a lull in fight­ing in re­cent days, but that ne­go­ti­a­tions fal­tered over the is­sue of let­ting Daesh ter­ror­ists leave and clashes had re­sumed.

“The ne­go­ti­a­tions stopped be­cause we com­pletely re­ject the idea that their se­cu­rity mem­bers leave the city with­out con­se­quences,” the of­fi­cial said, with­out spec­i­fy­ing whether the talks might re­sume.

Reuters

Med­i­cal per­son­nel treat civil­ians who were wounded on Raqqa’s front­line at a mosque on Thurs­day. Weak­en­ing mil­i­tants with air power has come at a cost in civil­ian lives, res­i­dents say.

Reuters

A man who said he was wounded in an air strike, dur­ing fight­ing be­tween SDF and Daesh in Raqqa, speaks to re­porters at a mosque.

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