Desperate people trapped in the besieged Iraqi city of Mosul are so hungry they are having to eat cats, according to aid workers.
Save the Children have told of “shocking” conditions in the city, where there is no medical help available for the injured and people are forced to survive on whatever food they can get their hands on.
Iraqi and Western coalition forces promised a rapid victory when they launched an offensive to retake Iraq’s second largest city, where the self-declared Isis caliphate have their last remaining stronghold in the country.
But the battle has raged for four months after Isis fighters offered fierce resistance, with conditions for those trapped inside becoming increasingly desperate.
One man, known as Kareem, a father of five whose three sisters live in the western part of the city, told aid workers of the struggle for survival in the Isis-stronghold as the battle worsens.
“My sisters are living in extreme conditions. There is nothing available there, no bread, no water, no food. They all have young children who are a similar age to my children.
“I have heard many things from my sisters. They are surviving off food they have kept in their stores but they only have supplies for a maximum of one month and they are afraid they will starve to death after this if the area remains besieged and under Isis control for much longer.
“There are people worse off than them, they told me that in another area there are people who are surviving off eating the meat of cats.”
He added that no medical supplies had reached the area for the past four months.
“If someone gets sick they die. There’s nothing to keep them warm except blankets.”
Aid agencies are racing against the clock to prepare for an expected mass exodus of civilians as Iraqi forces surround the city in the final stages of the battle for Mosul.
Supplies have been dwindling in the west after the main road to Syria was cut off three months ago.
Half the food shops are shuttered, and the price of fuel has leapt with reports that families have burned furniture to keep warm or cook food during the winter.
Around 60 per cent of Mosul residents lack drinking water, according to the UN, with many forced to drink untreated water from wells.
Save the Children’s Country Director for Iraq, Maurizo Criveallero, said: “What we're hearing from inside western Mosul right now is deeply concerning.
“Even when there is food available at the markets, people don't have any money left to buy it. Families and their children are on the brink of starvation.
“This is a siege by any other name, and a brutal one. If civilians try to flee they risk almost certain death at the hands of Isis fighters. If they stay, then they could be killed by bombs and crossfire.”
He added that Iraqi forces and their coalition allies, who include the UK and the US, must ensure they protect children as they advance and secure humanitarian relief for them as soon as possible.
Emergency camps are under construction in nine Iraqi cities and tents are being erected in existing camps to try and absorb displaced people.
Food and other basic supplies are being brought in for up to 400,000 Iraqis who aid workers anticipate will flee in the coming weeks.
Aid agencies on the ground say there are three possible scenarios for how the battle for Mosul will play out – either a protracted siege of the city, the mass displacement of 400,000 people or the “best case scenario” of an orderly evacuation of Iraqis as the western part is gradually made secure.
Since the offensive was launched against Isis in October last year, more than 217,000 people have been displaced from eastern Mosul, which was retaken by Iraqi forces last month. An estimated 57,000 people have since been able to return to their neighbourhoods.
The battle for the western part of the city has proved more challenging because tanks cannot pass through the narrow streets and alleyways, according to Iraqi commanders.
Some civilians being smuggled out of western Mosul are said to be paying $2,000 and risking their lives to escape after Isis fighters issued a warning to stay put or be killed. Until recently, if civilians were caught trying to flee, they could pay a fine to Isis soldiers and return home.
But the tactics have hardened and it is feared that as allied troops begin retaking western part of the city, Isis fighters could use remaining citizens as human shields to prolong the stalemate.
Mosul is the Isis heartland and it was here that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only public appearance at the al-Nuri mosque.
It has become clear from the fierce fighting so far that Isis will not retreat as easily as they did from the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Ramadi because losing their prized stronghold could pose an existential crisis for the group.