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Mosul-area Civilians Fear Being Used as Human Shields

FILE - Newly displaced Iraqi's who fled from the city of Mosul, Iraq's last major Islamic State (IS) group stronghold, are reunited with their relatives who came two years ago to the refugee camp in the Khazer area.

As a collection of forces moves toward the Iraqi city of Mosul, witnesses are reporting Islamic State fighters taking civilians from outlying villages and using them as human shields as they seek to defend the last major urban area they control in the country.

So far, the Iraqi-led operation has involved retaking the villages on a march toward Mosul from the south, east and north. The United Nations says more than 10,000 civilians have fled their homes in and around Mosul, raising concern about their wellbeing and the availability of humanitarian resources.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern Thursday about Kurdish forces, who are playing a major role in the offensive, and what the group says is their arbitrary detention of men and teenage boys leaving Mosul.

HRW says according to others who fled, the men and boys over the age of 15 are separated from their families for extra screening to make sure they are not linked to Islamic State. The process can take weeks. The group's report said Kurdish officials have emphasized "serious efforts" to abide by international standards in security screenings.

Lama Fakih, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director, said the need for screening is understandable, but that detaining all males over the age of 15 because they were living in Islamic State-controlled territory is discriminatory.

"Given what these men and boys have already endured, screening should be carried out quickly and in a way that respects individual rights," she said.

Also Thursday, the World Health Organization said it and Iraqi health authorities are accelerating their response to the flow of people out of Mosul, including moving 46 mobile health clinics to areas of priority across Iraq.

WHO said medicine and other health supplies for 350,000 people have already been prepositioned, and more are on the way. U.N. officials warned at the beginning of the Mosul offensive that as many as 200,000 people could be displaced in the first weeks, and that in a worst case scenario as many as 1 million people would end up leaving their homes.

Islamic State militants seized Mosul in mid-2014 as they swept through large areas of northern and western Iraq.

Altaf Musani, WHO representative in Iraq, said that since then more than 1.5 million people in Mosul have had little or no access to aid, and that a lack of safe water and sanitation as well as children missing out on vaccines have elevated the risk of disease outbreaks.

"Humanitarian needs are expected to increase significantly, and the predicted exodus from Mosul over the coming days and weeks could spark yet another health crisis in Iraq," he said.