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Fears for Fallujah residents in Iraq as assault on 'Islamic State' (IS) intensifies

Iraq's top Shiite cleric has called for the protection of an estimated 50,000 civilians who are trapped by the military assault on Fallujah. IS extremists are preventing them from leaving, the UN says.

Cleric Ali al-Sistani said the protection of civilians trapped in the besieged city must be prioritized, amid concerns they are facing attacks in an ongoing offensive to repel IS militants from the city.

"Saving an innocent human from harm is more important and greater than targeting the enemy," his representative, Ahmed al-Safi, said in a sermon at a mosque in the holy city of Karbala, according to independent website Alsumaria News.

Hundreds of people are reported to have fled the city on Friday but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said

those who remain are being prevented from leaving,

as the city continues to come under heavy bombardment from the Iraqi military.

Onslaught underway

Backed by US-led airstrikes and a powerful Shiite military,

tens of thousands of Iraqi forces began its offensive

to dislodge IS from its stronghold on Monday. Fallujah is one of only two major Iraqi cities still controlled by the jihadist group.

Pro-government forces in Iraq's Anbar province

Pro-government forces in Iraq's Anbar province

Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren insisted that the coalition forces were mindful of their humanitarian obligations.

"The Iraqi government has been clear that protecting these civilians is their priority," he said.

The coalition has dropped leaflets informing the population to avoid IS areas. Residents who are unable to leave have been told to put white sheets on their roofs to mark their locations.

Evacuation plan

The Iraqi army is working to establish evacuation routes, and the local Anbar government has set up camps for displaced civilians, Warren said. But reports suggest IS checkpoints along main roads in the city are hampering residents' escape efforts.

Fallujah residents flee

Hundreds of civilians fled the city on Friday, but tens of thousands remain trapped by the fighting

"The situation inside Fallujah is getting critical by the day," said Nasr Muflahi, the Norwegian Refugee Council's Iraq director.

One resident, Umm Omar, who escaped with more than 10 members of her family said: IS "gave us food that only animals would eat."

"There is nearly no one walking in the streets," said RBSS activist Hamoud al-Musa.

"People are afraid of a brutal onslaught from the warplanes, whether coalition, Russian, or even regime," he told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

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mm/jm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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