Fears for trapped civilians in strife-hit Iraq, Syria
An estimated 1,000 extremists still in Fallujah are suspected of using civilians as human shields
Iraq’s elite forces deployed around Fallujah on Saturday, marking a new phase in efforts to retake the extremist bastion, as concern grew for trapped civilians there and in neighboring Syria.
After almost a week of shaping operations around Fallujah, the arrival of the counter-terrorism service (CTS) signaled that an assault on ISIS inside the city may be imminent.
The deployment of Iraq’s best-trained and most battle-tested unit came as US-backed forces pressed simultaneous offensives against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the top commander in charge of the Fallujah operation, said the CTS, police and tribal fighters had reached two camps south and east of the city.
“These forces will break into Fallujah in the next few hours to liberate it from Daesh,” he said, using an acronym for ISIS.
Fallujah, 50 kilometres west of Baghdad, is one of the two remaining major Iraqi cities still in ISIS hands.
ISIS also advanced in Syria’s northern Aleppo province and further east as a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the US-led coalition pressed an offensive against Raqqa, the extremists’ de facto capital in Syria.
Raqqa is home to an estimated 300,000 people and residents have been paying smugglers $400 (350 euros) each to try to flee after ISIS tightened restrictions on people leaving, the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has said.
Around 165,000 displaced Syrians are also trapped between the closed Turkish border and the town of Azaz, sparking UN concern.