slamic State jihadists in Raqqa are dressing up as US-backed forces and setting up fake checkpoints to catch civilians trying to escape the “capital” of the group’s caliphate, residents say.
The militants are posing as liberating Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, and capturing anyone that approaches.
“They took several families today, we do not know if they have killed them yet,” Tim Ramadan, an activist with the anti-Isil group Sound and Picture living in the northern Syrian city, told the Telegraph on Wednesday.
“They set up checkpoints in the al-Murour neighbourhood in the south of Raqqa and were waving Kurdish flags,” said Ramadan, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity. “The families thought they had reached safety but then realised they had been fooled.”
Isil is using as human shields the remaining civilians – estimated to number somewhere between 7,000-20,000 – and threatening anyone who tries to leave with execution.
“The other day Isil dumped four corpses in one of the streets with a sign that said: ‘They were killed because they tried to escape’, people are too scared to leave their homes,” Ramadan said.
There are believed to be between 700 and 1,000 militants left in Raqqa, holed up in the centre. Most of the Western fighters left the city for the Isil-held province of Deir Ezzor before the offensive, leaving the battle to Arab militants.
The SDF has encircled them and captured around 60 percent of the city. But the jihadists have been putting up a fierce fight for what had been Isil’s most important territory, using mortars, suicide bombs, and snipers.
Ramadan described the dire situation for those trapped. Effectively besieged, nothing is getting in to areas still under Isil control and residents have had to resort to boiling grass and weeds for food.
“Some families gather in the evenings in one of their homes, and every family brings the food that they have to share, even if it is just grass soup: often that is the only meal they eat that day,” Ramadan said.
Water has been cut off for two months and residents are relying on old wells.
He said he has been unable to leave his street for several weeks as Isil has booby-trapped the routes out and the US-led coalition has been bombarding his neighbourhood with air strikes.
As many as 700 civilians have been killed since the SDF-led offensive began in June, according to AirWars, a UK-based monitoring group. Ramadan, who accuses the coalition of indiscriminate bombing, fears the real number is much higher.
“We have seen incidents in which entire families have been wiped out. The scale of things is increasing significantly,” said Alex Hopkins, a researcher at AirWars.
There has been a “worrying increase in the rate of mass casualty incidents” in recent weeks, he said, with disproportionate numbers of children being reported killed.
Ramadan says civilians are sheltering together in homes, which is why there has been a high numbers of casualties from single strikes.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Iraq, troops are battling the last hold out of Isil fighters outside the city of Tel Afar, northwest of Mosul.
Fighters have entrenched themselves, said one Iraqi officer, who claimed the fighting there is “multiple times worse” than in Mosul’s old city, which itself was one of the most complicated and bloody battles in a generation.
Colonel Kareem al-Lami described breaching the militants’ first line of defense in al-‘Ayadiya as like opening “the gates of hell”. Sniper shots, mortars, heavy machine guns, and anti-tank rockets were fired from every single house, he said.
Raqqa, a dusty city lying on flat land in the desert, has proven much more difficult for Isil to defend than Mosul and its surrounds. SDF officials are hopeful it will be liberated within the coming two months.