The United Nations said Thursday it is preparing for a "mass exodus" from the western part of the Iraqi city of Mosul, as military operations intensify to dislodge Islamic State terrorists.
The military liberated the eastern part of Mosul in mid-January, and then turned its sights to the city's western sector last month. Until then, Iraq's second largest city had been in the grip of IS terrorists since 2014.
"The number of people that are coming out and the pace of exodus is higher than it was in the east," the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told reporters from Baghdad.
In the lead-up to the battle to retake eastern Mosul, humanitarians were braced for the flight of as many as 700,000 civilians, but ultimately more than a half-million stayed in their homes and rode out the fighting.
The United Nations estimates between 650,000-680,000 people are still in western Mosul potentially some 400,000 residing inside the old city where the assault is now focused.
So far, 120,000 have already evacuated, many of them in poor condition. Grande said 6,800 fled the city on Thursday, and on average 45,000 people a week are flowing out of the west. They are reporting food and water shortages, as there have been no steady supplies to the city since mid-November.
"If the pace of displacement reaches a certain level — and what we are worried about is that we are getting pretty close to that level — it is going to overwhelm us," Grande warned. She said the U.N. and its partners are not there yet, but could reach capacity very quickly.
"We are just in front of it now, but if you start to look at numbers of 100,000 people coming out all at once or in a very short time period, it is going to be really tough for us," Grande said.
She said there are 17 emergency sites receiving displaced families coming out of Mosul, and that work is continuing around the clock to construct additional ones.
She noted that there have also been 1,000 casualties since the offensive on western Mosul began in mid-February. Those people have been treated at four trauma sites. An additional three trauma facilities are in the works.