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'Human catastrophe' unfolding amid battle for Fallujah

Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP | Iraqi pro-government forces are battling to recapture the city of Fallujah from the Islamic State group.

The siege of the jihadist-held Iraqi city of Fallujah and the 50,000 civilians believed trapped inside it is a catastrophe in the making, a leading aid group warned on Tuesday.

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Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), renewed a call for safe corridors to be opened to prevent massive civilian loss of life in the western Iraqi city.

"A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah. Families are caught in the crossfire with no safe way out," he said in a statement.

"For nine days we have heard of only one single family managing to escape from inside the town. Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now, before it's too late and more lives are lost," he said.

Iraqi government forces backed by Shiite militias launched an operation on May 22-23 to retake the Islamic State (IS) group bastion, which lies only 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad.

Since then, only one of the more than 550 families who have managed to flee IS group rule in the area were from the centre of Fallujah.

Besieged by pro-government forces numbering in the tens of thousands, the jihadists are preparing for a bloody last stand and are suspected of using civilians as human shields to slow the government advance.

The NRC runs camps in Amriyat al-Fallujah, a government-controlled town south of Fallujah, where fleeing civilians are given shelter and assistance.

With elite Iraqi forces now attempting to push towards the city centre, the fighting is expected to intensify.

IS group counter-attack

Egeland appealed for emergency funding to meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable people from Fallujah.

"There isn't enough safe drinking water and the situation will quickly worsen with summer around the corner, and temperatures likely to hit over 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit)," Egeland said.

"The international community must urgently provide funding so that we can help the most vulnerable people," he added.

His comments came as Iraqi forces repelled a four-hour counter-attack by IS group militants in the city’s south.

The attack started at dawn in Fallujah's Nuaimiya area where Iraqi troops captured almost 85 percent of the ground the previous day, two officers with the special forces told The Associated Press.

Sunni civilians fear sectarian backlash in Fallujah

IS group militants used tunnels, deployed snipers and sent six explosives-laden cars to hit the troops but they were destroyed before reaching their targets, the officers said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing campaign.

Iraqi forces suffered casualties, but the officers didn't give details.

Fallujah has been under IS group control for over two years and is the last major city in western Iraq still under control of the Sunni extremist group.

The militants still control patches of territory in the country's north and east as well as the country's second largest city, Mosul.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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