Thou­sands flee Fal­lu­jah via safe route se­cured by Iraqi army

Pakistan Observer - - INTERNATIONAL -

BAGH­DAD—The Iraqi army said on Sun­day it had se­cured the first safe exit route for civil­ians to leave ISIS’ be­sieged strong­hold Fal­lu­jah, and a Nor­we­gian aid group said thou­sands of peo­ple had al­ready used it to flee in the first day it was open.

Iraq has launched a ma­jor op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture Fal­lu­jah - an ISIS bas­tion just an hour’s drive from Bagh­dad - but the United Na­tions fears for the fate of up to 90,000 civil­ians be­lieved trapped in­side with lit­tle food or wa­ter. The new exit route, known as al-Salam (Peace) Junc­tion, was se­cured on Satur­day, south­west of Fal­lu­jah, Joint Op­er­a­tion Com­mand spokesman Brigadier Gen. Yahya Ra­sool told Reuters.

“There were exit routes pre­vi­ously, but this is the first to be com­pletely se­cured and it’s rel­a­tively safe,” said Ra­sool. About 4,000 peo­ple had fled the city over the past 24 hours through the al-Salam Junc­tion, said Karl Schem­bri, a spokesman in Iraq for the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil, which has been as­sist­ing peo­ple who es­cape the city.

“We ex­pect thou­sands more to be able to leave in the com­ing days,” he said. The al-Salam Junc­tion route was se­cured af­ter troops dis­lodged in­sur­gents from dis­tricts lo­cated on the west­ern bank of the Euphrates river, op­po­site Fal­lu­jah’s city cen­ter on the east bank, said Ra­sool. He did not give a num­ber for the civil­ians who were able to flee so far us­ing it.

More than 20,000 peo­ple have man­aged to flee the city and its sur­round­ing area since the Iraqi army be­gan the of­fen­sive on May 23, the United Na­tions said on June 8. But the lack of se­cure routes made their es­cape ex­tremely dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous. At least a dozen peo­ple were re­ported to have drowned while cross­ing the Euphrates.

Those who man­aged to reach gov­ern­ment-held lines said they walked for days to avoid sniper fire and ex­plo­sive de­vices planted by ISIS in­sur­gents along roads to de­lay the army’s ad­vance. A gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial said the mil­i­tants were putting up a tough fight de­fend­ing the city, long an in­sur­gent bas­tion where US forces fought the heav­i­est bat­tles of their own 2003-2011 oc­cu­pa­tion.

Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi says the troops are pro­gress­ing cau­tiously in or­der to pro­tect the civil­ians. The army is re­ceiv­ing air sup­port from the US-led coali­tion and ground sup­port from Ira­nian-backed Shi’ite mili­tias and Sunni tribal fight­ers.

The Shi­ite mili­tias have de­ployed be­hind the army’s lines and did not take part di­rectly in the as­sault on the city to avoid in­flam­ing sec­tar­ian feel­ings. The as­sault on Fal­lu­jah is tak­ing place at the same time as ad­vances by US-backed fight­ers and Rus­sian-backed Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces in Syria, at the op­po­site end of ISIS’ self-de­clared caliphate. —Agen­cies

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