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 circle 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 IS 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 IS-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 IS 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.
Getting information is difficult. Militants constantly look for "spies." One activist said two people had recently been put to death for suspected contact with the coalition. The only internet access is in a few approved cafes where patrons must give their names and addresses and endure spot checks by IS fighters, who burst in and order everyone to raise their hands so computer screens can be inspected.
Raqqa, a provincial capital on the northern bank of the Euphrates, is the next major battle against the Islamic State group as Iraqi forces push to complete the recapture of northern Iraqi city of Mosul after nearly six months of fighting. For the Raqqa campaign, a multi-ethnic force of Syrian fighters, dominated by Kurds and supported by U.S. special forces, artillery and air power, have been maneuvering to isolate the city.