US-led coalition air and artillery strikes have killed 70 ISIS fighters in Fallujah, including the militants’ leader in the Iraqi city, a military spokesman said Friday.
Baghdad-based Colonel Steve Warren said that over the last four days, 20 strikes in the besieged city had destroyed ISIS fighting positions and gun emplacements.
“We’ve killed more than 70 enemy fighters, including Maher Al-Bilawi, who is the commander of ISIL forces in Fallujah,” Warren said, using an acronym for the ISIS group.
“This, of course, won’t completely cause the enemy to stop fighting, but it’s a blow. And it creates confusion and it causes the second-in-command to have to move up. It causes other leadership to have to move around,” he added.
Iraqi forces launched an operation to recapture Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold located just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Baghdad, at the start of this week.
Between 500 and 1,000 ISIS fighters hold Fallujah, and about 50,000 civilians are trapped inside the city, with the jihadists trying to kill those who attempt to flee.
US planes have dropped leaflets telling locals to avoid ISIS areas, Warren said.
“Those leaflets directed those who cannot leave to put white sheets on their roofs to mark their locations. The Iraqi Army is working hard to establish evacuation routes. And the local Anbar government has set up camps for displaced civilians.”
Meanwhile, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites on Friday has called on Iraqi forces battling to retake the city of Fallujah from ISIS militants to protect civilians trapped there.
“Saving innocent people from harm’s way is the most important thing, even more so than targeting the enemy,” the Associated Press quoted Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as saying.
His comments were delivered at Friday prayers by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the holy city of Karbala.
Rights groups have expressed concerns for the tens of thousands of civilians estimated to still be in the city, which has been in ISIS hands for more than two years.
Head of Iraq’s federal police said 720 civilians have been evacuated from northern Fallujah so far, the independent Al-Sumaria News reported on Friday.
“The families [evacuated] were mostly women, children and they have been transferred to a secure location after aid was channeled to them,” Lieutenant Shakir Jawodat said.
The United Nations said in a statement released Thursday that only 800 people have been able to flee Fallujah since Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to retake the city.
Residents contacted inside Fallujah by the UN have said that the amount of bombs and booby traps laid by ISIS in and around the city would make any flight very perilous.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s emergency task force said on Friday that ISIS communication center in northern Fallujah was destroyed and four would-be suicide bombers were killed.
(With AP, AFP)SHOW MORE