Baghdad: Iraq said it had launched an investigation into possible human rights abuses against civilians fleeing the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah as a senior UN official said more than 7,300 people had left the city in the last two days.
Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi yesterday said some fighters suspected of violating human rights during the three-week-old operation to retake the city have been arrested over the past few days and are under investigation.
Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said the United Nations estimates that there had been about 90,000 people in Fallujah, and between 42,000 and 43,000 have now fled including about 4,000 on Sunday and 3,300 yesterday.
So there could still be about 50,000 civilians trapped inside the city, she said, "and nothing is more important than protection of those civilians."
Fallujah has been under IS control for over two years and is the last major city in western Iraq still held by the extremist group. The militants have threatened anyone who attempts to flee with death and last week reportedly shot at a group of civilians attempting to escape across the Euphrates River.
Al-Hadithi, the Iraqi spokesman, did not provide details on whether the arrested fighters are from the army or government-sanctioned paramilitary forces, which are mainly made up of Shiite militias.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi "issued arrest warrants against some suspects who took part in the operation a few days ago," al-Hadithi said.
"The Prime Minister is closely following the investigation and we are still awaiting the results."
Local Sunni officials and human rights groups have accused Shiite militias of arresting, torturing and killing Sunnis who fled Fallujah and its outskirts.
The governor of Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, told a press conference on Sunday that 49 civilians were killed and 643 others have gone missing.
Suhaib Al-Rawi described them as displaced persons from Fallujah who reached areas controlled by the paramilitary forces.
The spokesman for Iraq's paramilitary forces, Karim al-Nouri, confirmed the arrest of one fighter for alleged human rights violations, but did not provide further details.