GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency reports thousands of people from predominantly Christian communities in an Iraqi town near Mosul have been fleeing their homes this week because of nearby violence generated by militant Islamist rebels.
Islamist insurgents reportedly launched mortar attacks on the historic Assyrian town of Qaraqosh on Wednesday, panicking the local Christian community to take flight. This town of 50,000 people is about 50 kilometers southeast of Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul.
Armed men from ISIL, a militant Sunni Muslim group, seized control of this town two weeks ago from the Shi'ite-run government. U.N. refugee spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says most of the estimated 10,000 Christians who have fled have gone to the more secure Kurdish areas of Iraq.
“They fled by bus, car, and taxi into Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region on Wednesday night. Many of them are women and children staying with family, relatives, friends, schools, community centers, mostly in Irbil," she said. "They tell us they fled in a big rush and did not bring many belongings with them. So, that is a sign of how afraid they are.”
Fleming says UNHCR and local volunteers have distributed essential items, such as quilts and mattresses, plastic sheeting and hygiene kits at schools and community centers where the displaced are sheltering.
An estimated 300,000 Iraqis from Mosul’s Ninewa province and elsewhere have arrived in the Kurdistan region since the al-Qaida splinter group seized Mosul. Fleming says this latest influx of displaced will put more pressure on limited resources. She says there is a particular shortage of housing and fuel supplies.
The UNHCR spokeswoman tells VOA the Christians fled preemptively, not because they were being deliberately targeted.
“They were hearing mortars," she said. "They feared being targeted because there are absolutely accounts of other incidents involving Christians whereby they were told they needed to convert or die. So, certainly there is a widespread fear among the Christian community in this area.”
A female resident from a mostly Christian town in the Mosul region says conditions are very bad since ISIL seized control.
“Nothing is the same," she said. "Since 15 days ago, we don’t have security, electricity and water. Everybody is afraid of ISIS and salaries haven’t been paid either.”
Apparently conditions for some people who fled to Irbil are no better. The UNHCR reports staff who visited a school sheltering hundreds of displaced people found no showers or air conditioning to protect them from the sweltering heat. Aid workers say people are living in classrooms where daytime temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius.