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BEIRUT – Scores of civilians including women and children are fleeing the last few remaining neighborhoods held by the Islamic State group in Syria's northern city of Raqqa, ahead of an anticipated final push by U.S.-backed fighters seeking to retake the city.
A new video that emerged Friday shows desperate, terrified residents emerging from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrive. They seemed to be taking advantage of a slowdown in the fighting and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition amid efforts to ensure the safe evacuation of an estimated 4,000 civilians who remain trapped in the city.
The coalition has said that IS militants are holding some civilians to use as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly damaged by the fighting, and activists have reported that over 1,000 civilians have been killed there since June.
The video released by the Turkey-based Kurdish Mezopotamya Medya on Friday showed clearly petrified residents running toward safety, some clutching babies or wounded people.
"This is my husband, we are civilians!" one woman cried, fearing that fighters from the U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces would take him away. Some of the arriving men were searched before being allowed in while others kissed the ground in relief.
"God is stronger than them (IS)," shouted another woman, clutching what appeared to be a large Quran in her hand.
Another elderly man hobbled out on crutches, begging for water. After drinking from a bottle handed to him, he collapsed on the ground in exhaustion.
Gunfire could be heard in the background.
SDF fighters have been on the offensive in Raqqa since June 5 and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city that was the de facto capital of IS.
IS still controls the city's stadium believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small area north of Raqqa.