Deadly endgame: ISIS shoot fleeing civilians as Iraqi army closes in on Fallujah
The UN estimated that there had been about 50,000 civilians in Fallujah – strategically valuable due to its proximity to the capital Baghdad – prior to the government counter-offensive, which began on May 22. Refugee NGOs say that only 18,000 of those have reached their camps in the past fortnight.
Those left inside, have been building rafts to try and escape the city via the 250m-wide river Euphrates, with scant possessions, or nothing at all.
“They are using empty refrigerators, wooden cupboards and kerosene barrels as makeshift boats to cross the river. It’s totally unsafe and this is why innocent people are drowning,” provincial council head Shakir al-Essawi told Reuters, approximating that about 1,000 families have attempted to use the water route.
“When people tried to cross the Euphrates, Islamic State militants shot and killed them,” Iraqi MP Khalid al-Alwani testified to the Iraqi parliament on Monday.
Iraqi elite counterterrorism force chief Major Ali Hanoon told AP that at least “dozens” of civilians, and likely a much higher number, had been shot in the back as they attempted to flee.
"They know that if they trap the civilians, it will slow our progress," Hanoon said.
Citizens’ fears may be augmented by reports of previous recaptures of ISIS strongholds, particularly by militias from a different sect, in which retribution has been delivered to locals, though this time the Iraqi authorities have purposefully elected to use regular forces for the final assault.
Still, social media images have emerged of Shia militias torturing Sunni escapees, earning a rebuke from the UN.
Al-Alwani, a Sunni, has lobbied the Shia-dominated government to provide cover and police boats for the refugees, but the chief of the government onslaught Ismail al-Mahalawi, said on state television on Monday that helping them remains a “difficult operation.”
"Our biggest fears are now tragically confirmed,” surmised Nasr Muflahi, of the Norwegian Refugee Council, the organization that has been receiving the fugitives.
Fallujah has been under ISIS control since January 2014, but last month the Pentagon declared that the radical Islamist group has lost 45 percent of its maximal gains in Iraq, and a fifth of its Syrian territory. An attack on the city of Mosul is likely to be the next biggest target for the government, and its international coalition backers.
"The assault on Fallujah will soon be over, and Iraq will be free of terrorists by the end of the year," promised Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday.