BAGHDAD // ISIL has has been shooting and killing civilians in Fallujah who try to flee the fighting between Iraqi government forces and the militants, the military said.
Maj Ali Hanoon, who is with the elite Iraqi counterterrorism forces, said seven civilians and seven ISIL defectors inside Fallujah were shot dead on Sunday as they attempted to flee.
He put the number of civilians killed by ISIL since the two-week operation started at “dozens” but declined to be more specific, saying the information from Fallujah is often incomplete. Iraqi officials said the total was likely to be higher.
Iraqi forces, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, have been fighting to retake the ISIL-held city of Fallujah since late May, but the advance stalled last week because of heavy resistance the militants have put up and because an estimated 50,000 civilians are trapped inside the city.
On Sunday, Iraqi forces secured the southern edge of Fallujah, a largely agricultural area.
“They know that if they trap the civilians, it will slow our progress,” Maj Hanoon said.
From Baghdad, the Norwegian Refugee Council, which works with refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, said on Sunday that a number of fleeing civilians have been killed as they tried to cross the Euphrates River.
The NRC cited interviews with some of those who fled the city.
“Our biggest fears are now tragically confirmed with civilians being directly targeted while trying to flee to safety,” said Nasr Muflahi, the NRC country director in Iraq. “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.”
The NRC put the total number of families who managed to flee from the outskirts of Fallujah in the early days of the Iraqi offensive, which started May 21, at 2,980. Only a couple more families have managed to escape from inside Fallujah since then, the NRC said.
Also on Sunday, Iraqi forces involved in operations to retake Fallujah also found a mass grave believed to contain 400 bodies of members of the military and some civilians, said a colonel in the police of Anbar, where Fallujah is located.
The mass burial site was discovered in the town of Saqlawiya, northwest of Fallujah in the Euphrates Valley, he said.
“The security forces of the federal police, the army and the Hashed al-Shaabi found a mass grave in the Shuhada neighbourhood during a mine clearing operation,” he said.
The colonel said most of the victims appeared to have been shot in the head.
“The security forces have opened the mass grave and started transferring the bodies for identification,” he said.
The bodies were believed to belong mostly to Iraqi soldiers who were killed by ISIL in a series of attacks on army bases in the area.
“The organisation [ISIL] executed many members of the military, as well as civilians, in this area in late 2014 and early 2015,” he said.
Rajeh Barakat, a member of the Anbar provincial council, confirmed the discovery.
“The mass grave also includes civilians executed by Daesh on various charges such as spying or breaking the organisation’s rules,” he said.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse