BAGHDAD • Twelve people, including women and children, are being treated for possible exposure to chemical weapons in Mosul, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group is fighting off an offensive by United States-backed Iraqi forces, the United Nations has said.
The World Health Organisation has activated, with partners and local health authorities, "an emergency response plan to safely treat men, women and children who may be exposed to the highly toxic chemical", the agency said in a statement.
It said all 12 patients are undergoing treatment in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, east of Mosul. Four of them are showing "severe signs associated with exposure to a blister agent". The patients were exposed to the chemical agents in eastern Mosul.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said five children and two women were receiving treatment for exposure to chemical agents. It did not say which side used the chemicals, which caused blisters, redness in the eyes, irritation, vomiting and coughing.
Local media reported that mortar fire launched from western Mosul hit houses in the east of the city and some residents complained of a foul-smelling chemical.
ISIS militants, who still control much of the western side of the city, have regularly bombarded the eastern side with mortars and rockets, causing misery for civilians living there.
More than one million civilians were still in the city when the offensive to retake it began nearly five months ago. Iraqi security forces have tried to keep people in their homes, but the number of those fleeing has escalated in recent days as Iraqi forces make inroads into the packed western neighbourhoods.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting. They launched their attack on the districts west of the Tigris river on Feb 19. The eastern side remains within reach of militants' rockets and mortar shells.
Defeating ISIS in Mosul would crush the Iraqi wing of the caliphate declared in 2014 by the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, over parts of Iraq and Syria.
Calling for an investigation, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Ms Lise Grande, said: "If the alleged use of chemical weapons is confirmed, this is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime, regardless of who the targets or the victims of the attacks are."
REUTERS, XINHUA, WASHINGTON POST