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BEIRUT — ISIS militants are stiffening their defenses for a possible assault on their de facto capital of Raqqa, as international airstrikes intensify on the Syrian city in retaliation for the Paris attacks. ISIS fighters are hiding in civilian neighborhoods and preventing anyone from fleeing, former residents say.
The northern Syrian city's estimated 350,000 people are gripped by fear, rattled by powerful Russian and French airstrikes that shake the city daily. They are also worried they would be trapped with nowhere to go amid signs of a looming ground invasion by U.S.-allied Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria, according to the former residents who have fled to Turkey and now report on events in Raqqa through acquaintances and activists inside.
For months, the anti-ISIS forces have been advancing gradually toward Raqqa with backing from American-led airstrikes, capturing ISIS-held towns to the north and east of the city. After ISIS claimed responsibility for Friday's carnage in Paris that killed at least 129 people, there are calls for even stronger action in Syria.
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Iraqi intelligence officials this week told The Associated Press that the operation was planned in Raqqa, where the attackers were trained specifically for this operation with the intention of sending them to France. The attacks came soon after ISIS claimed the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt and deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon and Turkey.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday suggested Raqqa would be the new focus.
"My sense is that everybody understands that with Lebanon's attacks, with what's happened in Egypt, with Ankara, Turkey, with the attacks now in Paris, we have to step up our efforts to hit them at the core where they're planning these things," he said after his meeting with French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday.
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 from the U.S.-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition called the Democratic Forces of Syria are 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, ISIS banned people leaving the city and activists said it has stepped up 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.
"There is major fear in the city, especially with Daesh preventing civilians from leaving the city," Khaled said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.