By Reuters – Apr 05,2017 – JORDAN TIMES
A displaced Syrian woman, who fled Daesh group stronghold of Raqqa, reacts as she arrives at a temporary camp in the village of Ain Issa on Friday (AFP photo)
AIN ISSA, Syria/AMMAN — People from Raqqa are fleeing their city under cover of night as US-backed forces close in on the Daesh terror group stronghold, running a gauntlet of minefields and hostile fighters instead of risking death in a major battle expected to begin soon.
Daesh has used threats and coercion to stop people leaving, forcibly returning some to the city in an apparent effort to use them as human shields against the looming assault by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
At a camp north of Raqqa, Syrians who escaped the city in the last few days say Daesh checkpoints are now disappearing as fighters either leave for the frontlines or withdraw to strongholds to the south.
“There are no longer checkpoints. There were before, but they evacuated,” said Abdullah Hamad Ali, who escaped Raqqa on Saturday night by foot, guided by a smuggler to whom he paid $2,100 to get his family out of the city.
“We walked through farmland planted with mines,” he told Reuters at the camp in Ain Issa, a town around 45km north of Raqqa where more than 3,000 people from the city are sheltering in SDF-held territory.
The assault on Raqqa promises to be a defining moment in the US-led war against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Along with the Iraqi army’s campaign to drive Daesh out of Mosul, it threatens to deal a major blow to the militants.
It is unclear how many people remain in Raqqa, Daesh’s Syrian base of operations for more than three years and a major symbol of the cross-border “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. The city’s population has been estimated at 200,000 before the recent departures.
The US-led coalition and SDF are still expecting a tough fight. Daesh has been digging fortifications and trenches in the city in readiness for an attack which the Kurdish YPG militia has said will begin in April.