Iraqi forces enter Qayyahrah, UN readies for exodus

The UN rushes to build camps to accommodate as many as 1.2 million civilians who could be displaced

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Iraqi forces on Tuesday have swiftly advanced and stormed the center of Qayyarah, a district south of the ISIS-held city of Mosul, hours after it launched its operation against the militant group, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.

Entering Qayyarah from three points started early morning on Tuesday to finally reclaim Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s last major urban stronghold in the country.

Counter-terrorism units are also taking part in the operation alongside the Iraqi army. Iraqi officials said the priority of the operation is to save and protect civilians in the area being used by ISIS as human shields.

‘Worsen displacement’

The United Nations said Tuesday it was rushing to build camps to accommodate what it expects to be a mass exodus from Mosul following the battle to eject ISIS.

The UN refugee agency warned that an expected battle to liberate Mosul was likely to “dramatically worsen” the displacement situation in the country.

Iraq is already facing one of the world’s biggest displacement crises, with 3.38 million people forced to flee their homes in the country since 2014.

In just the past few months alone, 213,000 people have been forced from their homes across the country, including around 48,000 who have fled Mosul, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva.

“The humanitarian impact of a military offensive there is expected to be enormous,” he said, cautioning that as many as 1.2 million civilians could be affected.

After retaking Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in June, the main focus of Iraqi security forces is Mosul, which is the ISIS group’s de facto capital in Iraq.

Iraqi special forces led an operation Tuesday aimed at retaking the militants-held town of Qayyarah, which is expected to be used as a launchpad for a broader operation against Mosul in the coming weeks or months.

Once the operation begins, UNHCR estimates that some 400,000 people could flee to the south of Mosul, around 250,000 to the east and another 100,000 to the northwest, towards the Syrian border, Edwards said.

He said contingency plans had been drawn up to provide shelter for up to 120,000 people fleeing conflict in Mosul and surrounding areas, while UNHCR was looking to set up six new camps across northern Iraq.

"Progress depends on both the availability of land and of funding," Edwards said, pointing out that UNHCR's overall appeal for $584 million for displaced Iraqis, including those who have fled to nearby countries, was only 38-percent funded.

He also warned that "finding available land for the new camps has become a critical issue," as many landowners were unwilling to lease land.

Other areas could not be used because they were too close to the frontline, or because setting up camps there could inflame ethnic, sectarian, religious or tribal tensions, he said.

The operation comes a day after six Iraqi civilians were killed when a bomb planted by the ISIS group went off as they tried to flee the Hawijah area, security officials said.

(With AFP)