After weeks of fierce fighting, Iraqi security forces on Friday broke through Islamic State defenses to reach the center of Fallujah, a city just west of Baghdad controlled by IS for more than two years.
Coalition airstrikes continued to pound IS targets, hitting two tactical units and destroying six heavy machine guns, as Iraqi Special Forces took over what had been an IS command center.
Spokesman for the coalition Army Col. Chris Garver confirmed Iraqi forces had seized a government building in the center of the city.
As IS lost control of the area and the southeast quadrant of the city, some 18,000 people began pouring out, trying to escape the fighting, some walking 15 kilometers to get to safety.
“There are reports that IS is trying to shoot those who are leaving in the legs, trying to intimidate them,” UNHCR’s Bruno Geddo told VOA.
Geddo said once the families reached safety, they were being collected by the Iraqi army or relatives.
“Many are exhausted, and some collapse on the way,” he said. Ambulances were said to be driving back and forth to collect the wounded and exhausted and taking them to nearby hospitals.
The families of IS fighters are thought to be among those fleeing. “It is believed that among the latest flood of refugees from the city are the wives and children of IS fighters,” Geddo said.
The huge numbers of refugees threatened to overwhelm the capacity of the government and aid agencies. More than 50,000 people have fled the fighting in the past three weeks.
It is unclear how many families are still trapped in the city.
Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq director Nasr Muflahi welcomed the news that thousands of civilians had made it to safety, but said he was concerned by the dramatically rapid increase in humanitarian need.
“Aid services in the camp were already overstretched, and this development will push us all to the limit,” he said in a statement.
Geddo said a number of new camps were being set up as quickly as possible to provide shelter and basic relief items to the newly-arrived.
Those who made it to safety told NRC that IS started to withdraw from certain areas of the city early Thursday morning.
“Neighbors saw them evacuate their checkpoints, driving their vehicles loaded with food and fuel,” said one 69-year old Fallujah resident, whose name was not released.
IS militants reportedly pulled back into the city’s western neighborhoods, but left behind heavily booby-trapped buildings and streets, networks of underground tunnels, and their snipers.
The Iraqi security forces successful advances against the IS militants have been marred by reports that IS men and boys who had managed to escape were taken in for security screening, tortured, and in some cases, executed by Shi’ite militia.
Many humanitarian leaders in Iraq had strongly advocated that the Shi’ite militia remain at the back of the battle lines and not be involved in the security screening process in order avoid any sectarian abuses.
Fallujah has long been a Sunni stronghold, and IS militants are predominantly Sunni.
Carla Babb contributed to this report from the Pentagon