'20,000 children trapped' as Iraqi troops and IS militants battle for Fallujah
The UN children's fund has issued a stark warning to Iraqi troops and Islamic State militants to spare thousands of youngsters trapped by the battle for Fallujah.
The children are the most vulnerable among tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting for control of the city west of Baghdad.
Backed by aerial support from the US-led coalition and paramilitary forces mainly made up of Shiite militias, Iraqi government troops more than a week ago launched a military operation to recapture Fallujah, which has been under control of the extremist group for more than two years.
As the battled unfolds - with Iraqi forces pushing into the city's southern sections after securing surrounding towns and villages - more than 50,000 people are believed to be trapped inside the Sunni majority city, about 40 miles west of the capital.
Unicef estimated the number of children trapped with their families inside the city at about 20,000, warning that they face a dire humanitarian situation as well as the risk of forced recruitment by the militants.
"Children who are forcibly recruited into the fighting see their lives and futures jeopardised as they are forced to carry and use arms, fighting an adults' war," Unicef said in a statement.
It called on "all parties to protect children inside Fallujah" and "provide safe passage to those wishing to leave the city".
Fallujah was the first large city in Iraq to fall to IS and is the last major urban area controlled by the extremist group in western Iraq. The Sunni-led militants still control the country's second-largest city, Mosul, in the north, as well as smaller towns and patches of territory in the west and north.
The fight for Fallujah is expected to be protracted because IS has had more than two years to dig in. Hidden bombs are believed to be strewn throughout the city, and the presence of trapped civilians will limit the use of supporting air strikes.
On the ground, Iraqi special forces continued their push into the city from its southern edge and are facing tough resistance from IS militants.
Also on Wednesday, the United Nations said violence claimed the lives of at least 867 Iraqis in May, an increase from the previous month.
In its monthly report, the UN mission to Iraq, known as Unami, said at least 468 civilians were among the dead, while the rest were members of the security forces. A total of 1,459 Iraqis were wounded last month, it added.
In April, at least 741 Iraqis were killed and 1,374 wounded. The figures do not include casualties from Iraq's western Anbar province where Iraqi forces are battling IS militants.
Baghdad was the worst affected in May, when 267 civilians were killed and 740 wounded, followed by the northern province of Ninevah, which is almost entirely controlled by the IS group, with 56 killed.