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 circles 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 how to 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 ISIS 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. The militants allowed them into ISIS-controlled countryside nearby, as long as they left their possessions behind, according to an activist who is in touch with people inside the city. 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 ISIS fighters mingling among civilians.
To get a picture of Raqqa, the Associated Press talked to more than a dozen people with knowledge of the city, including residents who were still there or who had recently escaped, and activists with organizations that track events through contacts inside, as well as diplomats, the U.S. military and aid groups. Almost all spoke on condition they not be identified, fearing for their own lives or the lives of their contacts.
On Wednesday, the U.S.-led coalition said that a U.S. service member died of suspected natural causes in northern Syria.
A statement released by the coalition gives no other details. The military does not release names of fallen soldiers before the next of kin and family are notified.