Tuesday 20 February 2018

Thousands flee Fallujah as Iraqi army declares victory

Iraqi security forces rise a national flag during house to house fighting against Islamic State militants in central Fallujah
Iraqi security forces rise a national flag during house to house fighting against Islamic State militants in central Fallujah

Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Thousands of civilians are fleeing Fallujah after the city was declared liberated from Isil, the United Nations said, while an Iraqi commander reported fierce clashes as elite counter-terrorism forces pushed to clear out the remaining militants.

Isil launched missiles, detonated a suicide car bomb and deployed snipers against Iraqi forces, Brigadier General Haider al-Obeidi said.

"Iraqi forces are still advancing despite the strong clashes," he added.

The UN says that over the past three days nearly 10,000 families have fled Fallujah amid the heavy fighting. More than 80,000 civilians have fled since the operation to retake the city from Isil was announced last month, according to the UN.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory on Friday after special forces had recaptured most of the city following weeks of fighting.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says the civilian exodus has overwhelmed camps run by the Iraqi government and humanitarian groups, leaving thousands without shelter or proper sanitation.

The conflict that erupted in Iraq after Isil blitzed across the country in the summer of 2014 has forced more than 3.4 million people to flee their homes.

Iraqi forces gained control of the main hospital in Fallujah on Saturday and were clearing mines after driving Isil from most of the city, one of its last remaining strongholds in the Anbar province west of Baghdad, a military official said.

Fighting was still under way in parts of the city, where US and Iraqi warplanes targeted snipers and other Isil positions, Brig Gen Haider al-Obeidi said.

On Friday he said that Iraqi troops controlled 80pc of the city, with Isil concentrated in four districts on its northern edge.

Fallujah was the first Iraqi city to fall to the extremist group in January 2014 and was the last major Isil foothold in the sprawling Anbar province, the heartland of the country's Sunni minority. The group still controls Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in the north.

Iraqi troops have been advancing under the cover of airstrikes by the US-led coalition and Iraq's air force.

The operation inside the city was being conducted by the Iraqi army, regional and federal police forces as well as special anti-terrorism units. Shiite militias remained outside Fallujah and have not taken part in the recent battles.

Irish Independent

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