Civilians in ISIL’s long-time Syrian capital of Raqqa are being held as “human shields” as the militant group loses control of the city, the US-led coalition has warned.
A statement issued on Tuesday by the Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve said that discussions are under way to determine the best way to enable civilians trapped by ISIL to exit the city, "where some are being held as human shields by the terrorists”.
The task force, which was set up by the US Central Command to coordinate military efforts against ISIL, said that the Raqqa Civil Council, in conjunction with local Arab tribal elders, is taking a special interest in protecting civilians and preventing a significant humanitarian crisis as they flee the last ISIL-held portion of Raqqa.
"We have a responsibility to defeat Daesh while preserving civilian life to the greatest extent possible," said the coalition’s director of operations brigadier general Jonathan Braga.
He added: "Make no mistake: a lot of hard fighting remains and we are committed to the lasting defeat of Daesh."
Those departing Raqqa who are found to have fought for ISIL will be turned over to local authorities to face justice, the statement said.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces broke into Raqqa in June, and has since captured around 90 per cent of the city, with the help of heavy US-led air strikes.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled, but with fighting and air strikes concentrated on a shrinking ISIL-held section of the city, the exodus has slowed to a trickle.
As its options dwindle, jihadists are taking up positions inside residential buildings and dragging along terrified civilians for cover against a ferocious US-backed onslaught.
Locals who managed to flee describe being herded into apartments in buildings used by jihadists as makeshift military bases, and serving as human shields for fighters as they collect water.
Civilians say the tactic - used elsewhere by the group to slow its opponents - is increasingly putting them in the cross hairs of US air power and allied fighters as they battle ISIL in densely populated districts near Raqqa's centre.
In late September, the coalition acknowledged the deaths of 735 civilians in its strikes on Syria and Iraq since 2014, but the Britain-based Observatory says hundreds have been killed in Raqqa alone since June.