BAGHDAD (AP) — A two-year-old boy was killed by militants while fleeing Fallujah with his family amid a government offensive to retake the Iraqi city from the Islamic State group, an aid organization said on Thursday, highlighting the dangers faced by civilians trying to escape the nearly one-month military operation.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which works with refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, cited a relative as saying that an IS fighter shot the boy as he was being carried out of the city by his mother on Monday. The gunfire hit the mother's shoulder and killed her son, it said.
It was the mother's fifth attempt to flee Fallujah since her husband's escape three months earlier, the relative told NCR. On her previous four attempts, IS fighters had forced her to turn back.
At 3:00 a.m. Monday, the mother and her two sons and three daughters, all under eight years old, joined other residents on a perilous journey out of Fallujah.
"They had to walk for an hour through agricultural water channels, immersed up to their chest, to avoid the fighters," the relative was quoted as saying in the NRC statement. "The children were getting agitated and uncomfortable in the water, making noises just as they were about to dash out. At that point they must have attracted the attention of the fighters, who opened fire," he added.
The toddler was killed instantly. His mother was bleeding heavily and had to be dragged out of the water by her companions. Her other children escaped unharmed.
The names of the mother and her relative were withheld to protect other family members still living under IS rule.
As dozens of families began trying to flee the city, IS deployed snipers and planted bombs to prevent them from escaping. There are no official figures for how many civilians have been killed while fleeing Fallujah.
Aid groups estimate that 50,000 civilians remain trapped inside Fallujah, which has been under IS control for over two years. It is the last major city in western Iraq still held by the extremist group.
The United Nations has said that about 42,000 people have fled since the military operation began in late May. Aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council say the number of those who have fled Fallujah is lower, and closer to 30,000.
The conflict in Iraq has forced more than 3.3 million people to flee their homes. Iraq is also hosting up to 300,000 refugees who have fled the civil war in neighboring Syria. Most are living in camps or informal settlements.