GENEVA - Aid agencies are warning that thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped in the Islamic State-controlled city of Tal Afar face great danger as they try to flee amid the government's battle to retake the city.
No one knows how many civilians remain in Tal Afar. Humanitarian agencies have been unable to enter it since IS militants captured it in 2014. However, the agencies estimate the city's pre-conflict population was 200,000.
The United Nations reports more than 30,000 people have fled Tal Afar district since April, with thousands more remaining behind. U.N. refugee spokesman Andrej Mahecic says conditions within the city reportedly are very difficult, with food, water and electricity in short supply.
He says many people are desperate to leave and those who do are putting their lives at risk.
"Many talk of seeing dead bodies along the way, and there are reports that some were killed by extremist groups," Mahecic said Tuesday. "Others appear to have died due to dehydration or illnesses.
"People leaving Tal Afar are walking long distances to reach safety, without food or water, at times up to 20 hours and in scorching heat. The temperatures, may I remind you, are about 50 degrees Celsius [122 Fahrenheit] in that part of Iraq at this time of the year."
Mahecic warns that Iraqi civilians inside Tal Afar are likely to be held as human shields by IS militants and those who attempt to flee could be shot. He says his agency has received reports that displaced Iraqi families who have escaped are being denied shelter in safe locations.
He says other reports indicate displaced people from Tal Afar are being harassed and subjected to revenge attacks. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is calling on the Iraqi government to prevent this abuse from occurring and to take measures to protect these individuals.
The government Sunday launched its military operation to retake Tal Afar, one of the last Iraqi areas held by IS, following the July liberation of Mosul about 80 kilometers to the east.