U.S. Says Islamic State Leaders Starting To Flee Raqqa As Battle Intensifies

The Pentagon says leaders of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group are starting to flee their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa as U.S.-backed Arab-Kurdish fighters step up their offensive against the city.

"We are starting to see now that a lot of senior [IS] leaders, a lot of their bureaucrats...are beginning the process of leaving Raqqa," Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said on February 17.

He said an unspecified number of IS members were heading east along the bank of the Euphrates River toward Deir el-Zour, because they see "the end is near in Raqqa."

The Pentagon said the exodus is a sign that the effort to isolate the extremists' self-declared capital of Raqqa is paying off.

Still, the Pentagon did not predict an imminent collapse of the militant group, and analysts said they expect a long battle for Raqqa.

The U.S. Central Command said the coalition on February 16 conducted 17 strikes near the city, targeting two IS staging areas and a combat unit.

The Pentagon said the attacks destroyed four tunnels, three fighting positions, three IS-held buildings, two weapons storage areas, two IS headquarters, a bridge, and other targets.

Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander for the campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq, said last week that forces battling for Raqqa and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul -- the IS stronghold in northern Iraq -- should prevail within the next six months.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP