300.000 people used as human shields by ISIS in Raqqa
Islamic State militants are effectively using the entire population of Raqqa as human shields, AP reported, as US-backed forces push on to capture the IS bastion in Syria.
IS leaders transported their own families outside of the northern Syrian city before planting a belt of landmines and checkpoints in and out of Raqqa to prevent civilians from escaping.
All men were ordered to wear the militants’ garb of baggy pants and long shirts, making it difficult to distinguish militants from civilians, according to an AP report.
It is estimated 300,000 people are trapped inside the city, living in terrifying uncertainty over their safety.
“The people really don’t know where to go,” an activist told AP, adding residents were caught between airstrikes, land mines and IS fighters mingling among civilians.
Enormous tarps have been stretched for blocks in the city centre to hide the militants’ movements from spy planes and satellites.
Airstrikes by the US-led coalition shake the city almost daily, mainly hitting northern neighbourhoods, 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.
Raqqa, a provincial capital on the northern bank of the Euphrates, is the next major battle against IS as Iraqi forces push to complete the recapture of northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where civilians are also in grave danger, after nearly six months of fighting.
For the Raqqa campaign, a multi-ethnic force of Syrian fighters, dominated by Kurds and supported by US Special Forces, artillery and air power, have been manoeuvring to isolate the city.
Battle-hardened militants in Syria are leading the defence in Raqqa, bolstered by reinforcements from those who withdrew from Mosul and other parts of Iraq.
About 2,000 militants are en route from Iraq, said Eyas Dass, editor of Al Raqqa Post, an opposition website that documents atrocities by IS and the Syrian government.
As many militants are already in Raqqa, according to Tim Ramadan, an activist with the group Sound and Picture.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, estimated over 4,000 fighters in the city.
Earlier this month, the militants used their artillery in the city for the first time, a sign of how close the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have come.
The SDF has positions to the north, west and east – their closest position is about eight kilometres [4.9 miles] from Raqqa to the northeast.