BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq said Monday it had launched an investigation into possible human rights abuses against civilians fleeing the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah as a senior U.N. official said more than 7,300 people had left the city in the last two days.
Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said some fighters suspected of violating human rights during the three-week-old operation to retake the city have been arrested over the past few days and are under investigation.
Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said the United Nations estimates that there had been about 90,000 people in Fallujah, and between 42,000 and 43,000 have now fled — including about 4,000 on Sunday and 3,300 on Monday.
So there could still be about 50,000 civilians trapped inside the city, she said, "and nothing is more important than protection of those civilians."
Fallujah has been under IS control for over two years and is the last major city in western Iraq still held by the extremist group. The militants have threatened anyone who attempts to flee with death and last week reportedly shot at a group of civilians attempting to escape across the Euphrates River.
Al-Hadithi, the Iraqi spokesman, did not provide details on whether the arrested fighters are from the army or government-sanctioned paramilitary forces, which are mainly made up of Shiite militias.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi "issued arrest warrants against some suspects who took part in the operation a few days ago," al-Hadithi said. "The Prime Minister is closely following the investigation and we are still awaiting the results."
Local Sunni officials and human rights groups have accused Shiite militias of arresting, torturing and killing Sunnis who fled Fallujah and its outskirts.
The governor of Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, told a press conference on Sunday that 49 civilians were killed and 643 others have gone missing. Suhaib Al-Rawi described them as displaced persons from Fallujah who reached areas controlled by the paramilitary forces.
The spokesman for Iraq's paramilitary forces, Karim al-Nouri, confirmed the arrest of one fighter for alleged human rights violations, but did not provide further details. He said the accusations of abuse by paramilitary forces were "mere lies aimed at distracting attention from victories on the ground."
He said that all displaced people detained by paramilitary forces for security screening were handed over to authorities.
Last week, the U.N. human rights chief said there were "credible reports" that Iraqis fleeing Fallujah were facing physical abuse as they escaped the city held by Islamic State militants.
Along with roadside bombs planted by IS militants, the large number of civilians caught inside Fallujah, located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, have slowed down the Iraqi forces' operation to recapture the city.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which works with refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, said earlier that 4,000 people had fled since Saturday, bringing the total number of residents who escaped Fallujah since the Iraqi offensive started in late May to 27,580 — a lower estimate than Grande's figures.
Thousands more are expected to take the risky journey in the coming hours, the Norwegian agency said, adding that some refugees reported IS militants were demanding 150,000 Iraqi Dinars, or around $130, from each person to let them leave.
Grande told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York in an audio briefing that one corridor out of Fallujah is open from the southwest and a second corridor out of the city is under construction. She had no estimate when it would be completed.
The U.N. appeal for $861 million for Iraq this year is only 30 percent funded, Grande said, and if the U.N. needs to support between 80,000 and 90,000 people from Fallujah for a year it will need an addition $50 million to $60 million.
The Norwegian aid group warned that humanitarian resources are running low and called for at least $10 million for a six months' supply of water, food and basic necessities.
"Thousands of others remain trapped inside and the most vulnerable will need urgent assistance," said NRC Country Director in Iraq Nasr Muflahi.
On Sunday, the Iraqi command announced that key areas to the west of Fallujah have been taken and that Iraqi forces pushed deeper into the city from its southern edges.
U.S.-trained Iraqi counterterrorism forces, wary of coming street battles in the city, are already facing fierce resistance on the outskirts from well-entrenched militants.
Associated Press reporter Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.