'Escapees shot’ fleeing Fallujah as civilians bear the brunt of anti-Isis offensives across Iraq and Syria

Iraqi forces have secured the southern edge of Fallujah but many fear a bloodbath among trapped civilians

Chris Stevenson
Monday 06 June 2016 20:26
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Isis is said to shooting and killing civilians as they try to flee from Fallujah – with Iraqi government forces battling the group to re-take control of the city.

Aid group the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which works with refugees and internally displaced Iraqis has said that a number of fleeing civilians had been killed as they tried to cross the Euphrates River while looking to escape the city.

It appears the latest example of civilians paying a price for a number of offensives across both Iraq and Syria by a number of groups and the Syrian regime, that looks to regain more of the ground that has been lost to the group.

Iraqi forces, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, have been fighting to retake Fallujah since late May but the advance stalled last week because of heavy resistance from Isis and the presence of an estimated 50,000 civilians trapped inside the city.

The threat faced by civilians if they tried to leave the city is something that The Independent reported on at the end of last month with Isis ‘death squads’ appearing on the streets as government forces advanced.

Nasr Muflahi, NRC country director, said: “Our biggest fears are now tragically confirmed with civilians being directly targeted while trying to flee to safety.”

Iraqi civilians recount horrors of battle for Fallujah

“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,” he said.

On Monday, an Iraqi Major, Ali Hanoon, claimed to the Associated Press that “dozens” of civilians had been killed by Isis since the Fallujah offensive started.

On Sunday, Iraqi forces secured the southern edge of Fallujah, but Maj Hanoon said that if Isis “trap the civilians, it will slow our progress".

Sunni politicians have voiced concern that the presence of Shia militias alongside the army in the battle could lead to an increase in sectarian violence

There were also reports on Monday of suspected torture of civilians by Shia militia forces that are advancing on the mainly-Sunni Fallujah.

Sunni politicians have voiced concern that the presence of Shia militias alongside the army in the battle could lead to an increase in sectarian violence. Such violence is a major concern for the Iraqi government, particularly as Sunni-majority cities are retaken from Isis.

Shia militias have denied previous accusations of abuses against Sunni citizens, but such concerns have also played into the slowing of the advance to retake the city.

Elsewhere, A leader of one of the Shia militia groups also appeared to criticise the Iraqi government on Monday over tactics in the battle to defeat Isis.

Hadi al-Amiri, told Reuters that in moving an armoured brigade to the Makhmour area near Mosul – the other large Iraqi city held by Isis – was a “betrayal” of the battle for Fallujah. US officials have made no secret of their desire to re-capture Mosul, and US-backed Kurdish forces have seized villages to the east of Mosul in recent weeks.

Due to its proximity to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, it is only an hour’s drive away, some of those fighting Isis see Falllujah as the more pressing battle – particularly given the recent rise in Isis bombings in Baghdad.

Some of those fighting Isis see Falllujah as the more pressing battle - due to its proximity to Baghdad

Isis is also under pressure in Syria, with the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), including a Kurdish militia and Arab allies that joined it last year, having launched an attack on the Isis-held city of Manbij last week. The aim being to drive the jihadists from its last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier. If successful it could cut the main access route Isis has to the outside world.

The US-backed SDF have now surrounded the city on three sides, according to a spokesman for the group, although civilians are again at risk with more than 200,000 citizens thought to be at risk of being displaced due to the fighting.

Syrian government forces also announced it has captured more ground on Monday in their push toward the northern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Isis “Caliphate”.

The Syrian government push came two days after the troops first reached the edge of the northern province of Raqqa. The Syrian government has had no presence in the province since August 2014, when Isis captured the Tabqa military air base and killed scores of government soldiers.

The Syrian government and Russian aerial forces have been striking in a number of areas, including around Aleppo. However there were reports yesterday [MON] that warplanes believed to belong to Russia or the Syrian army killed at least 17 people in an air raid on a market in the Isis-held town of Ashara in the eastern province of Deir Ezzour on Monday, monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The province links the Syrian territories held by Isis with its Iraq strongholds. Moscow denied its planes had flown in the area near the reported strike.

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