ISIS is allowing residents to leave the capital of its so-called caliphate
The move comes as U.S.-backed forces launch an offensive to the north of Raqqa
The Sunni terror group declared a state of emergency in Raqqa earlier this month
ISIS has let some residents of its so-called capital flee to the surrounding countryside as a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces pushes forward with an offensive to the north of Raqqa, one resident and an activist group tell CNN.
The battle, announced Tuesday, is meant to retake that area, Kurdish officials said, but is likely to stop short of attempting to retake the beleaguered Syrian city.
A resident of the nearby town of al-Bab said that in recent days, some residents of central Raqqa had been allowed to leave the city center for the outlying areas.
Sarmad al-Jilane, of the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, confirmed the report, saying that the Sunni terror group was allow residents to move to the countryside near Raqqa or to the city of Deir Ezzor to the southeast, but not to travel any further.
Clashes on outskirts of Raqqa
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of armed militants backed by the U.S., and Kurdish groups announced the offensive on social media and through various announcements Tuesday.
The activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently tweeted late Tuesday that a clash was taking place in the northern outskirts of the ISIS stronghold.
“#Raqqa there was clashes today between #ISIS and #YPG with #SDF in Hesha village in Raqqa north Countryside,” the tweet read.
The monitoring group also reported that over the past few days, coalition aircraft have been dropping leaflets over the northern suburbs of the city, asking civilians for the first time to leave the areas controlled by ISIS.
“This is the time you have been waiting for. It is time to leave Raqqa,” a report on the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently website says.
However, it appears the initial operation will be limited in scope.
Idriss Nassan, a spokesman for the Kurds in Kobani, said there had already been some clashes in the villages around Ain al Issa, 30 miles north of Raqqa, but he did not believe the offensive from the north and east was aimed at the city of Raqqa itself.
The U.S.-led coalition is providing assistance and advice to the Syrian Democratic Forces in the battle, coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren said.
There are personnel providing “advice and assistance” but there are not forces on the front line, he said.
“We are in their off centers and headquarters providing advice,” he added, and not “exchanging fire” with ISIS.
State of emergency?
Earlier this month, U.S. officials confirmed that the jihadi group had declared a state of emergency in Raqqa as Kurdish and Syrian rebel troops consolidated gains around the city.
“We have seen this declaration of emergency in Raqqa, whatever that means,” Warren then told reporters. “We know this enemy feels threatened, as they should.”
Media reports indicated that ISIS was moving personnel around the city and was trying to put up covers in certain areas to shield potential targets from airstrikes and ground attacks.
ISIS internal docs show struggle to retain fighters, cut costs
Fall of a city
Earlier this year, two Syrian women took a hidden camera through the northern Syrian city to document their life under ISIS rule.
Since falling three years ago, Raqqa has fundamentally changed, with ISIS imposing hardline Islamic law in a city once considered Syria’s most liberal.
The war has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people nationwide and displaced more than 10 million, according to the United Nations.
Russia is ready to coordinate efforts with the U.S.-led coalition and the Kurdish forces in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday. “I cannot say how real reports are that such actions have already begun, but we are ready for such coordination,” Lavrov said in Uzbekistan.
Warren said the coalition has “always been focused on evicting ISIS” from Raqqa. “We will continue to support the (Syrian Democratic Forces) as they conduct ground operations to further isolate the city.”
He added that the coalition will continue to provide air support in the battle against ISIS.
Battles outside Raqqa coincide with an intense battle against ISIS in Falluja, Iraq.
Iraq’s military, part of the U.S. coalition, launched an offensive Monday to reclaim from ISIS the traditionally Sunni-dominated city about 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Tens of thousands of residents may be trapped in the city, the United Nations has said.
CNN’s Euan McKirdy, Tim Hume and journalist Mohammad Eyad Kourdi contributed to this report