The U.N. children’s fund on Wednesday issued a stark warning to Iraqi troops and Islamic State militants in the battle for Fallujah to spare the children, the most vulnerable among tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged city west of Baghdad.
UNICEF has estimated the number of the children trapped inside the city at about 20,000, warning they face a dire humanitarian situation, in addition to the risk of forced recruitment by IS.
More than 50,000 civilians are believed trapped inside the Sunni majority city, about 40 miles west of Baghdad. Government forces have imposed a tight blockade on the city and IS militants are reportedly preventing residents from leaving.
UNICEF has also stated basic survival means – food, medicine and clean water – are quickly running out.
The organization called on all parties to “protect children inside Fallujah” and to “provide safe passage to those wishing to leave the city.”
Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led airstrikes and mainly Shiite militias launched an operation more than a week ago to recapture Fallujah, which has been held by IS for more than two years.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said IS was using civilians as human shields, and that the government has called on residents to evacuate through safe corridors or stay inside their homes.
Fallujah was the first large city in Iraq to fall to IS and is the last major urban area controlled by the extremist group in western Iraq. The Sunni-led militants still control Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, as well as smaller towns and areas in the west and north.
The fight for Fallujah is expected to be protracted because IS has had more than two years to dig in. Hidden bombs are believed to be strewn throughout the city, and the presence of trapped civilians will limit the use of supporting airstrikes.
Story compiled with information from Associated Press, Reuters and NBC.