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Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants are stiffening their defenses for a possible assault on their de facto capital Raqqa, as international airstrikes intensify on the Syrian city in retaliation for the Paris attacks. ISIL fighters are hiding in civilian neighborhoods and preventing anyone from fleeing, former residents say.
The northern Syrian cityand’s estimated 350,000 people are gripped by fear, rattled by powerful Russian and French airstrikes that shake the city daily. Former residents of Raqqa, who fled to Turkey and now report on events in Raqqa through acquaintances and activists there, report that the remaining citizens are worried about being trapped with nowhere to go. This is amid signs of a looming ground invasion by US-allied Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria.
For months, the anti-ISIL forces have been aancing gradually toward Raqqa with backing from US-led airstrikes, capturing ISIL-held towns to the north and east of the city. After ISIL claimed responsibility for Fridayand’s carnage in Paris, where at least 129 people died, there are calls for even stronger action in Syria.
Iraqi intelligence officials told The Associated Press this week that the hit on Paris was planned in Raqqa, where the attackers were trained specifically for the operation and for being sent to France. The attacks came soon after ISIL claimed the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt and deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon and Turkey.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday suggested Raqqa would be the new focus.
But the extremists are digging in to make any potential assault as grueling as possible. The city, which they have held since early 2014, lies on the Euphrates River at an intersection of major routes from all directions, most through agricultural areas crisscrossed by canals and tributaries of the river. The closest forces are the US-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition called the Democratic Forces of Syria 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the north in the town of Ein Issa.
The Raqqa activists say the militants have been stepping up defenses of the city since late October, after the Democratic Forces launched their campaign, vowing to retake the city. Shortly afterward, ISIL banned people from leaving the city and activists said it has stepped up its enforcement of the ban in the past few days, leading to fears the group intends to use civilians as human shields in future fighting.
To avoid being hit in their bases, the fighters have moved into residential neighborhoods in empty homes abandoned by people who fled Raqqa earlier, said an activist from Raqqa. He spoke on condition he be identified only by the name he uses in his political activism, Khaled, for security reasons.
andquotThere is major fear in the city, especially with Daesh preventing civilians from leaving the city,andquot Khaled said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
Khaled, who now lives in Turkey, is in touch with people back in Raqqa. Raqqa residents could not be reached because of an ISIL ban on private Internet access across the city.
Among new measures that have been put in place by ISIL, according to several of the activists, is an order that ISIL fighters move only in alleys and side streets to avoid detection from the air and not use vehicles at night.
Those measures have intensified after a series of successful hits by the coalition that killed a number of ISIL leaders, including the ISIL militant known as andquotJihadi Johnandquot who appeared in several videos depicting the beheadings of US and Western hostages.
On the roads leading into Raqqa, the extremists have dug extensive tunnels and trenches, said another activist from Raqqa, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of ISIL retaliation. More recently, the militants placed tires filled with fuel on empty barrels around the city, with plans to ignite them in case of an attack to cloud the skies with smoke.


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