Civil­ians held as hu­man shields

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Bassem Mroue and Lori Hinnant

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.

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