ISIL captures thousands of fleeing Iraqis

UN report says ISIL is murdering civilians who try to escape.

An Iraqi family escapes hunger and danger from the extremists in Hawijah, Iraq on January 9, 2015. Mahmud Saleh / AFP 


Hundreds of families are fleeing Hawijah, around 220 kilometres (140 miles) north of Baghdad, which is one of the Islamic State (IS) jihadists' strongholds but the noose is tightening around it, with Kurdish peshmerga forces holding positions north and east, and federal forces as well as tribal fighters inching closer from the south and west.

 / AFP PHOTO / Mahmud Saleh
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GENEVA // ISIL terrorists may have captured as many as 3,000 Iraqis who fled their villages on Thursday, murdering 12 of them, the UN says.

A report from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, followed a statement on Thursday from the Iraqi Observatory for Human rights, which said about 1,900 civilians were taken by 100 to 120 ISILgunmen and used as human shields against attacks by Iraqi Security Forces. Tens of civilians were murdered, six of them by burning.

“UNHCR has received reports that ISIL captured on 4 August up to 3,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) from villages in Hawiga District in Kirkuk governorate trying to flee to Kirkuk city. Reportedly, 12 of the IDPs have been killed in captivity,” the UNHCR report said.

Hundreds of civilians have over the past few days managed to flee the area, which lies west of the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk and about 220 kilometres north of Baghdad.

Hawijah and its surroundings are one of the last major areas east of the Tigris still controlled by ISIL and possibly the next target of the forces battling the fanatics in Iraq.

A brigadier-general with the Kurdish peshmerga forces said, “Our forces received 600 people yesterday and offered them assistance. We heard from them that Daesh (ISIL) is holding hundreds of families hostage and has executed young men for escaping from the land of jihad (holy war) to the land of the infidels.”

A police colonel also said that several people had been shot dead by ISIL fighters as they attempted to flee the area recently.

A local tribal leader, Sheikh Anwar Al Assi, urged Iraqi forces to step up operations aimed at retaking Hawijah and rescue trapped civilians. Kurdish and federal forces have held positions around Hawijah for months, imposing a loose siege on the city but stopping short of launching a fully-fledged assault to retake it. Al Assi estimated the number of people still living under ISIL rule in the Hawijah area at 100,000.

“We are facing the risk of a massacre and the government has to move quickly,” he said.

After retaking much of the vast western province of Anbar ifrom ISIL n recent months, including the city of Fallujah in June, Iraqi forces are training their sights on remaining extremist strongholds in the north. The ultimate target is Mosul, the country’s second city and the de facto Iraqi capital of the militant organisation’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Despite losing its grip on some towns, ISIL still controls Mosul.

The UNHCR has begun building a site north-east of Mosul for 6,000 people and is preparing another north-west of the city for 15,000, a fraction of those expected to require shelter. Last month, the UN appealed for US$284 million to prepare aid for an assault on Mosul, as well as up to US$1.8 billion to deal with the aftermath. It has so far received nothing in response, according to the UN financial tracking service.

There is no doubt that the aid is desperately needed. Tens of thousands who fled from the city of Fallujah have still not returned since its recapture. Their fears are well-founded. Three volunteers helping to clear Fallujah of rubble and explosives died while clearing a house on August 1. The UNHCR said that although local authorities have suggested returns to Fallujah could begin in September, the ministry of migration and displacement has stated that it may take another three months before conditions are conducive for large scale returns.

The war against ISIL in Iraq has displaced 3.4 million so far.

* Reuters