Iraq’s army claimed on Monday to have arrested hundreds of alleged Isil fighters melting away from Fallujah as government-backed groups edged closer towards the terror group’s stronghold.
Hadi Rzayej, the province’s police chief, said 546 “suspected terrorists” had been arrested among the crowds of fleeing civilians. He told AFP that many of the men were using fake identification cards.
Iraq’s army, backed by Shia militiamen and Sunni tribal fighters, is close to wresting Fallujah from Isil, two years after it became the first major city to fall to the terror group.
It was neither possible to confirm either the number of arrests made by the military nor how many of the men were Isil fighters. Estimates for the number of Isil fighters holed up inside Fallujah have varied from 1,000 to 2,500.
Human rights groups have warned that the arrest and screening of military age males fleeing the area – a common practice in Iraq’s anti-Isil offensive – may lead to serious abuses behind closed doors.
After the recapture of Ramadi, another Isil stronghold, in December, Amnesty International said that more than 1,000 people, some as young as 15, were being held without charge in makeshift holding centres.
Until last week, an estimated 50,000 civilians were still trapped in the city as human shields. Although several thousands have now escaped, the journey to government-held territory is fraught with peril.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which supports several camps for displaced civilians, said on Monday that some Fallujah residents were being forced to pay bribes of £90 per person before they were allowed to leave. Cash supplies are running dangerously low inside the city after was effectively besieged by government forces earlier this year.
Dozens of people have died trying to cross the Euphrates River and others have reportedly been tortured and killed by Shia militiamen who believed they had fought for Isil.
Iraqi authorities insisted on Monday that they had arrested a number of those responsible for the executions. Such abuses had been widely expected and international observers still fear the possibility of a sectarian bloodbath as the Shia militias wait on the outskirts of the predominantly Sunni city.
The governor of Anbar, Sohaib al-Rawi, said on Sunday that 643 men had gone missing between June 3 and June 5, and that “all the surviving detainees were subjected to severe and collective torture by various means.” Others are believed to have been buried in mass graves.