250,000 more Iraqis could flee Mosul as anti-ISIS fighting moves west: UN

Displaced children who have fled the violence around Mosul receiving aid at a refugee camp in Arbil, Iraq, on Jan 31, 2017. PHOTO: AFP
Displaced children who have fled the violence around Mosul receiving aid at a refugee camp in Arbil, Iraq, on Jan 31, 2017. PHOTO: AFPPHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - Up to a quarter of a million Iraqis could flee their homes as the city of Mosul braces for an escalation of the conflict in its densely-populated west, the UN warned Friday (Feb 3).

The UN refugee agency and other organisations are urgently preparing to respond "to a potential significant new flight of displaced Iraqis escaping the latest phase in the military offensive in western Mosul," UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh told reporters.

He said that as many as a quarter million more people could be displaced as fighting escalates in the west of the city, where an estimated 750,000 civilians are living.

"A significant population is trapped in western Mosul and we are of course extremely concerned about their welfare," he said.

That would be in addition to the more than 161,000 who have fled since the Oct 17 start of a massive offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, although nearly 30,000 have returned home since soldiers recently won the east of the city.

The three months it took to reconquer Mosul's east saw some tough fighting, but even deadlier battles are expected on its west bank, home to the narrow streets of the Old City and some of IS's traditional redoubts.

Saltmarsh said most of those already displaced from Mosul, 83 percent, are living in camps and emergency sites.

The UNHCR currently has seven camps completed and two under construction, and is at the moment able to provide shelter to around 66,000 people.

Saltmarsh said the agency aimed to nearly double the accommodation available in the near term, but was waiting for land to be allocated.

By the end of March, the UNHCR hopes to be able to house 246,930 people in camps and emergency sites, he said.

The UNHCR also warned that a growing number of people were fleeing Hawija, southeast of Mosul, due to deteriorating living conditions and escalating fighting.

Saltmarsh said more than 82,000 people had fled the district since last August, moving eastwards towards Salah al-Din and Kirkuk, and cautioned that the number could rise to 114,000.

"Those who are leaving Hawija are facing grave dangers," he said, pointing to ambushes and improvised explosive devices, as well as reports of kidnappings along the way.