Civilians held as human shields
beirut » Residents of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa live in terror, trapped as a massive human shield in the Islamic State’s de facto capital ahead of the final battle with U. S.- backed opposition forces for the militant group’s last major urban stronghold.
A belt of land mines and militant checkpoints circle the city. Inside, all the men have been ordered to wear the jihadis’ garb of baggy pants and long shirts — making it difficult to distinguish Islamic State militants from civilians.
Hundreds if not thousands of Syrians who fled from other parts of the country now live in tents in Raqqa’s streets, vulnerable to both warplanes and ground fighting. Enormous tarps have been stretched for blocks in the city center to hide the militants’ movements from spy planes and satellites.
The estimated 300,000 people trapped inside live in terrifying uncertainty over howto find safety. Airstrikes by the U. S.- led coalition shake the city almost daily, mainly hitting northern neighborhoods, amid reports of civilians killed by strikes in the nearby countryside.
Leaflets dropped by coalition warplanes give confusing directions — one suggests areas closer to the Euphrates River are safer, but then another warns that boats crossing the river will be struck.
Mass panic erupted on Sunday, when IS announced on mosque loudspeakers that U. S. strikes had hit a dam to the west of Raqqa. Residents were urged to flee imminent flooding, and thousands did. Hours later, the militants announced it was a false alarm and urged everyone to return.
“The people really don’t know where to go,” said the activist, saying residents were caught between airstrikes, land mines and IS fighters mingling among civilians.
Raqqa, a provincial capital on the northern bank of the Euphrates, is the next major battle against the Islamic State group as Iraqi forces push to complete the recapture of northern Iraqi city of Mosul after nearly six months of fighting. For the Raqqa campaign, a multiethnic force of Syrian fighters, dominated by Kurds and supported by U. S. special forces, artillery and air power, have been maneuvering to isolate the city.