CAMP TARIQ, Iraq (AP) — As Iraqi security forces tighten their grip on the outskirts of militant-held Fallujah allegations of human rights violations are surfacing on both sides of the operation.
On Monday, hundreds of civilians, many bearing marks of torture were released north of Fallujah after being detained by a group of government sanctioned mostly Shiite militias. Five of those detained died while in the group's custody according to Yahya al-Muhamadi, an Anbar council member working with displaced civilians.
The militia forces, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are one of a number of different Iraqi security forces participating in the operation to retake Fallujah from the Islamic State group that has controlled it for more than two years.
The Popular Mobilization Forces deny that their fighters detain civilians.
"We are not authorized to detain anyone, we are just helping to move displaced people," said Hayder Mayahii, an official with the PMF's media office based outside Fallujah. Mayahii said his office was aware of the reports, but said they were completely false and the product of media bias.
The Popular Mobilization Forces illegally detained 605 people, al-Muhamadi the Anbar councilman said. "They tortured many of them, five people died from the torture."
Al-Muhamadi spoke as he oversaw the registration of hundreds of newly displaced civilians along the main road to the east of Fallujah. Late Monday night a dozen mini busses were packed with tired families from Saqlawiya and other neighborhoods north of Fallujah recently retaken from IS by Iraqi forces.
Local and federal Iraqi police regularly detain men and teenage boys from territory retaken from IS. The practice is part of a legal screening process to prevent IS fighters from escaping among the civilians, al-Muhamadi said.
In the row of mini buses on the road east of Fallujah, every family had been separated from all their male relatives over the age of 15. Iraqi security officials completing the registration process say the screening should only take three to five days and families will be quickly reunited.
But Amnesty International, a human rights organization says even civilians detained through the formal screening process are often held indefinitely without charge. Tens of thousands of civilians are estimated to still be in the custody of Iraqi security forces following the string of recent anti-IS territorial victories in Anbar province beginning in December of last year.
Inside the center of Fallujah, IS fighters are holding some 50,000 civilians captive and reportedly shot at a group of civilians attempting to flee the city Sunday across the Euphrates river, according to an international aid organization and the Iraqi military.
The operation to retake Fallujah from IS was launched in May. Iraq's elite counterterrorism troops began their push into the city center last week and secured the southern edge of Fallujah Sunday.
While Iraqi government officials have encouraged civilians still in Fallujah to flee, IS has threatened anyone who attempts to do so with death. Fallujah residents told The Associated Press a number of people have been shot trying to escape.
Maj. Ali Hanoon with Iraq elite Iraqi counterterrorism forces overseeing the Fallujah operation says he has received reports that dozens of civilians have been killed by IS while trying to flee Fallujah since the operation was launched more than two weeks ago. However he said the total is likely higher as information coming out of Fallujah is sporadic and often incomplete.
All the main roads leading in and out of the city are tightly controlled by IS checkpoints, leaving the Euphrates river as one of the few ways left for people to escape, according to Fallujah residents who spoke to The Associated Press by phone. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their own safety inside the militant-held city.
A mass grave has also been uncovered in Saqlawiya, a neighborhood north of Fallujah recently retaken from IS, according to the media arm of the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iraqi military. Hanoon with the counterterrorism forces said an estimated 400 bodies, mostly Iraqi soldiers executed by IS, are believed to be in the burial site.
On the side of the highway east of Fallujah, Hana Hussein, 45, waited to have her name registered Monday night. Earlier that day she was separated from her three oldest sons before being loaded onto a bus with her daughters.
"They said they are going to check their names in a database," she said through a bus window, "No one told me for how long they would be held, honestly I don't know when I will see them again."
Behind her, another woman held a tired toddler with tearstained cheeks as security officials shone flashlights into the vehicle to check names and ages.
"Don't worry," called a passing Iraqi officer to the crowded bus, "Daesh will be finished in just one or two more days god willing," he said using the arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.