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Islamic militancy

Bodies pile up as US-backed forces battle Islamic State in Syria’s Raqqa

Like Mosul, the house-to-house battle for Raqqa weighs most heavily on starving and bombed out civilians

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 1:44am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 1:44am

When Abu Ahmad stepped out of his house in Raqqa after a night of heavy air strikes, he found several of his neighbours lying dead in the street.

“I went out the next morning just to inspect,” he said. “I swear to God, cats were eating the corpses.”

“We couldn’t do anything with the dead bodies,” he said in a series of voice messages from the city, the global headquarters of Islamic State. “They were just abandoned. We informed the hospital.”

The US-led coalition battling to defeat the ultra-hardline militants in Raqqa says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Abu Ahmad said air and artillery attacks were relentless, leaving most people holed up inside, unable to bury the dead and paralysed by fear of the warplanes and shelling by US-backed forces fighting on the ground.

“We don’t dare come out of our houses,” he said. “There is death everywhere, the stench of death, of destruction. It’s terrifying.”

He declined to give his full name out of fear for his life and his account could not be independently verified: Islamic State has imposed tight controls on communications in Raqqa, and routinely executes people accused of spying or treachery.

He said he had encountered few Islamic State militants or armoured vehicles recently in his district, which lies close to a front line in the west of the city. Many of those he did see were teenage boys with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.

Bombed if they stay and shot if they flee, civilians face grim choices in ruins of Mosul

Under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Kurdish and Arab militias are now fighting inside the historic Old City, after pushing into Raqqa last month.

On one particularly bad day last month, Abu Ahmad had just returned from getting water at a nearby well when he said intense air strikes battered his district around Raqqa’s al-Nour mosque.

Jets pounded buildings and cars near the neighbourhood bakery, killing more than 30 people, he said. The US-led coalition said it was investigating the allegation.

People screamed for help in the dark and houses crumbled as the bombs fell, Abu Ahmad recalled. “Imagine...we couldn’t even do anything. The rocket launchers, the warplanes. We left them to die under the rubble,” he said.

A few men went out to search for and rescue the injured, but they could not get any of the dead bodies out.

The Kurdish-led SDF has said it is careful to safeguard civilians in Raqqa, which Islamic State has used as a hub to plot attacks abroad.

The US-led coalition also says it takes “all reasonable precautions” to avoid civilian casualties in its bombing runs in Syria and Iraq.

Ahead of the final assault on Raqqa city, the UN human rights office raised concerns about increasing reports of civilian deaths in the area. In a May report, it said there had been “massive civilian casualties” already.

The United Nations estimates that 50,000 to 100,000 people are trapped in Raqqa. Witnesses said the militants have shot at those trying to escape, and people who have left in recent months reported paying large sums to smugglers to get them out.

The US-led coalition said before the assault on Raqqa that 3,000 to 4,000 IS militants were still there, even after leaders abandoned the city for territory further south.

The SDF says that Islamic State has heavily mined the old quarters of Raqqa and that the militants are doing most of their fighting at night without moving much in the daytime.