GENEVA - The United Nations refugee agency was delivering relief supplies Friday to some 800 people who have managed to escape the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah over the past few days.
The U.N. refugee agency reports conditions in Fallujah are worsening as the Iraqi government continues its military offensive to re-take the city, which was captured by Islamic State militants in January 2014.
While several hundred people have managed to escape the besieged city, the UNHCR says some 50,000 civilians remain trapped inside. It says IS militants are preventing them from leaving and heavy bombardment by Iraqi forces is increasing the danger.
The agency is appealing to the government to open safe corridors so civilians can safely leave and receive life-saving assistance. UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says people who managed to escape have described harrowing tales of their journey.
“They tell us that they have to travel on foot for hours at night, moving across fields and hiding in disused irrigation pipes ," said Fleming. " And, also people have lost their lives trying to leave the city, including women and children. They have been killed trying to escape.”
Fleming says reports from inside Fallujah indicate people have little choice but to leave. She says there has been a dramatic increase in the number of executions of men and older boys who have refused to fight for IS.
She says a number of people who have tried to leave have been executed or whipped. At the same time, she notes many civilians reportedly have been killed or buried alive under the rubble of their homes in ongoing military operations.
In a related development, she says the UNHCR is mounting the first of five emergency airlifts on Friday for thousands of Iraqis who have fled fighting from IS or IS-controlled Mosul into war-torn Syria.
“So, we have seen actually a spike in the numbers of Iraqi refugees who are risking the dangerous crossing into Syria in a desperate bid - and just picture this," said Fleming. "We have refugees fleeing to Syria. So, it must be extremely desperate. So, it is a desperate bid to escape ISIL-held Mosul.”
The UNHCR reports nearly 4,300 refugees have arrived from the Iraqi border in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah Governorate this month. It says it is airlifting emergency items, such as tents and blankets, into the area in anticipation of further arrivals in the coming weeks.