Brutal Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists are shooting dead civilians who try to flee the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), an aid agency.
According to BBC, families interviewed by NRC revealed that civilians are “being shot dead” by the Islamic State as they crossed the Euphrates River trying to flee Fallujah, where up to 50,000 civilians are believed to be trapped, including 20,000 children.
“Our biggest fears are now tragically confirmed with civilians being directly targeted while trying to flee to safety,” said Nasr Muflahi, director of Iraq’s NRC office, in a statement, adding that “armed opposition groups” were carrying out the shootings, BBC reports.
“This is the worst that we feared would happen to innocent men, women and children who have had to leave everything behind in order to save their lives,” also said Muflahi.
The United Nations reported last week that ISIS jihadists are preventing the civilians from escaping the city, adding that the terrorists were also using “several hundred families” in Fallujah (also spelled Falluja) as “human shields” as they engaged in deadly battles with Iraqi troops, backed by the United States and Iran-allied Shiite militias.
Facing extreme violence as well as a severe lack of food, clean drinking water, and medicine, some Fallujah mothers are reportedly committing suicide and killing their own children.
Civilians are using “empty refrigerators, wooden cupboards and kerosene barrels as makeshift boats” to cross the Euphrates, Shakir al-Essawi, head of Fallujah’s regional council, told Reuters, adding “It’s totally unsafe and this is why innocent people are drowning.”
On May 31, the NRC reported that civilians in Fallujah were in urgent need of a safe passage out of the city.
“A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah. Families are caught in the crossfire with no safe way out,” warned Jan Egeland, the NRC’s secretary general. “For nine days we have heard of only one single family managing to escape from inside the town. Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now, before it’s too late and more lives are lost.”
“When the attack on Fallujah started, ISIS forced us to leave our homes and kept moving us from one damaged, deserted house to another,” proclaimed a Fallujah resident identified by the NRC only as Suad. “All the time we were exposed to the exchange of fire. On our last day the fighting became too fierce; they were shooting above our heads.”
Suad fled from a village on the outskirts of Fallujah with her husband and her six children, the NRC revealed.
However, the NRC reports that “no families are known to have fled the center of the city since Monday 23 May,” adding that almost 3,000 people (554 families) from areas surrounding the city center have managed to reach displacement camps.
“Families are calling for help. We just want to leave the city, we just want to leave it,” Fallujah resident Um Ahmed told the NRC in a rare phone conversation from inside the city.
The Iraqi military, backed by the United States and Iran-allied Shiite militias, launched an offensive to retake the city from ISIS late last month. Fallujah, which lies about 35 miles west of Baghdad, has been controlled by ISIS since 2014. The city, which is located in Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, is considered one of two remaining ISIS strongholds in Iraq, the other one being Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.
On Sunday, the Iraqi military announced that it had all but encircled the city, with only the western bank of the Euphrates remaining under ISIS’s control.
Iraqi troops are now poised to enter the city, declared Lt. Gen. Abdel Wahab al-Saadi, the Iraqi special forces commander overseeing the operation to recapture Fallujah, according to the Associated Press (AP).
Under cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Iraq’s military was able to secure the southern district of Naymiyah over the weekend, reports AP.
Last week, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi noted that concern the thousands of civilians still trapped inside Fallujah had slowed progress.
“Other Iraqi officials have said IS is offering stiff resistance as troops push towards the city center,” reports BBC.