A Yezidi refugee with her family talks to Rudaw television.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Fighting between Islamic militants and Kurdish forces west of Mosul has displaced tens of thousands of civilians and caused “a human tragedy,” the top UN official in Iraq said, as a dozen people were already reported dead from hunger and illness.
Meanwhile, the United States said it had joint operations centers in Erbil and Baghdad, which were helping the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga commanders by sharing intelligence information in the fight against the Islamic State, the group variously referred to as IS, ISIS or ISIL.
“I call on all Iraqi authorities, civil society and international partners to work with the United Nations to ensure the delivery of life saving humanitarian assistance,” said Nickolay Mladenov, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq.
“I also call on the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure that those civilians fleeing the violence are facilitated entry to the Kurdistan Region in order to receive protection and humanitarian assistance,” he said in a statement, calling the situation “a human tragedy.”
As IS fighters overran the town of Shengal on Sunday, local residents fled towards the Kurdistan Region while many took refuge on a nearby mountain.
Isolated from all help and rescue, hunger and thirst took their toll on the escapees on the arid mountain. By the end of the day on Sunday 15 people had died and were buried nearby.
“I myself participated in burying 10 children and five elderly, and many children are in bad health,” a local resident told Rudaw.
“Some of those we buried we only covered with rocks. We didn’t have any tools to bury them properly,” he regretted, adding that people were beyond exhaustion and urgently needed food and water.
Fighting between the Peshmerga in Shengal and Zumar has escalated since Saturday, with Peshmerga fighters equipped with newly-arrived advanced weapons went on the offensive to recapture the two towns.
US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki condemned the IS attacks and the displacement of civilians.
“We are gravely concerned for the safety of civilians in these areas, including the vulnerable minority communities who for years have been targeted by ISIL and its progenitor, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI),” Psaki said in a statement, referring to Kurdish Yezidis who have been facing persecution by the militants for their different religious beliefs.
“We deeply regret the displacement of innocent civilians and mourn the loss of life from recent fighting, including from the ranks of courageous Kurdish Peshmerga units who have been fighting to defend these areas,” Psaki’s statement said.
It added that, “The United States is supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga Forces working to defend these areas against ISIL. Our Joint Operations Centers in Erbil and in Baghdad are sharing information with ISF and Peshmerga commanders.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that close to 300,000 civilians from Shengal and Zumar had fled in the past 48 hours and headed for the safety of the Kurdistan Region, the only secure portion of Iraq.
Dindar Zebari of the KRG depart of foreign relations said the government has set up a special team to aid the refugees in coordination with the UN and other aid agencies.