Operation Fallujah: Iraqi civilians drown trying to flee fighting
Eighteen bodies were pulled out of Iraq's Euphrates river on Saturday as civilians attempted to flee the fighting in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, medical sources told The New Arab.
Of the bodies recovered, seven were children and three were women, believed to have drowned while trying to cross from one bank to the other, sources added.
"They tried to escape from death but were swallowed up by the river," Dr Mohammad al-Isawi at the al-Amariya Hospital told The New Arab.
"Daesh is responsible for these deaths and whoever claimed the existence of safe passage out of Fallujah," Isawi added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State [IS] group.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had announced safe routes had been established to allow civilians to flee the fighting, as an operation to recapture the city from IS militants took off last month.
Only 5,000 civilians of the 50,000 trapped in the city have managed to escape, many of whom walked for hours and came under fire as they fled.
Iraqi forces make gains
Iraqi militia fighters hold an IS flag after capturing the town of Saqlawiyah in northwestern of Fallujah [AFP]
Iraqi forces backed by Shia militias have, however, captured new ground in a key area of the IS bastion city.
Fighters from the army and the Popular Mobilisation Forces [PMF] entered the centre of Saqlawiya on Saturday.
The town lies around 10km [six miles] north-west of central Fallujah, and control of the rural area around "the city of mosques" will be crucial to its capture, say analysts.
"The Iraqi army's 14th division and the [PMF] stormed the centre of Saqlawiya town from the highway and raised the Iraqi flag," a statement from the Joint Operations Command said.
Federal police moving from a different direction were also involved in the operation to retake the town on the outskirts of Fallujah.
As elite forces continue attempting to push into the centre of Fallujah, other units have cleared areas surrounding the city to ensure it is completely isolated.
The operation in Saqlawiya aimed to cut Fallujah off from Jazirat al-Khaldiyah, an area to the west through which IS has been passing to reach its positions in the province and beyond.
A US-led coalition airstrike also hit a boatload of IS fighters attempting to flee Fallujah along the Euphrates river, killing all on board, the Joint Operations Command said.
Iraqi forces launched a major offensive last month to retake the city of Fallujah, which lies just 50km [30 miles] west of Baghdad and is one of IS' most emblematic strongholds in Iraq.
Agencies contributed to this report.