Iraqi forces are facing tough resistance on the outskirts of Fallujah, as they attempt to retake the key city held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) armed group.
Lieutenant-General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, the commander of the operation, said ISIL (also known as ISIS) fighters launched a fierce counter-attack on Naimiyah, a suburb south of Fallujah early on Tuesday before the armed group was repelled.
Those who make the decision of trying to flee know that at every step they might find death.
“There were around 100 fighters involved, they came at us heavily armed but did not use car bombs or suicide bombers,” he told the AFP news agency.
Saadi said Iraqi forces, which also include police and army units, were eventually able to repel the attack, killing 75 ISIL fighters.
He did not give a figure for losses on the pro-government side, however sources told Al Jazeera that at least 15 Iraqi security forces and members of allied Shia militias had been killed.
Al Jazeera’s Omar Al Saleh, reporting from the northern province of Erbil, said the Iraqi army was controlling over 85 percent of Naimiyah, according to military sources.
He added, however, that there were conflicting reports from the area, with ISIL claiming to have forced Iraqi troops to retreat after launching an ambush that left dozens dead.
Fallujah, 50km west of Baghdad, is one of the two remaining major Iraqi cities still in ISIL hands, the other being Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul.
The week-old operation has come at a human cost, rights groups said, with thousands of civilians trapped between ISIL fighters and the advancing Iraqi army and allied Shia militia.
Some 50,000 people were still stuck in the centre of Fallujah on Tuesday, struggling with dwindling water and food supplies. The UN said it had reports of people starving to death and others and being killed for refusing to fight for ISIL.
“Those who make the decision of trying to flee know that at every step they might find death,” Bruno Geddo, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
“If they manage to reach a safe corridor, the Iraqi army can evacuate them. However, if they are caught, they will be executed. To reach the safe area is extremely risky and dangerous.”
Geddo also said that food, medicine and fuel prices had “skyrocketed”, with many basic goods out of reach for ordinary residents.
“Food is completely unaffordable and the price of [50kg of] flour has sky-rocketed to more than $700. People are now eating rotten dates and yoghurt to survive,” he said.
A Fallujah resident told the AFP news agency by telephone that many civilians were fearful of what ISIL might do as fighting intensified.
“Their treatment of the people is getting worse and worse every day. There is a feeling of panic among them it seems,” the resident, who gave his name as Abu Mohammed al-Dulaimi, said.
“Daesh is angry because they don’t feel supported and they have been seen insulting people on the streets, shouting things like: ‘Cowards, you are not with us,'” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
“Yesterday, they were rounding up young men from several parts of the city – we think maybe around 100 of them – and taking them to an unknown location,” he said.