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UN chief Guterres visits Iraq, calls for protection of civilians

UN chief Antonio Guterres has called for civilians to be protected as the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul continues. His visit comes amid a growing humanitarian crisis caused by the fighting.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres arrived in Iraq on Thursday in a visit aimed at assessing the growing humanitarian crisis as Iraqi and allied forces, backed by US-led airstrikes, fight to recapture the northern city of Mosul from extremist "Islamic State" (IS) militants.

A spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) said Guterres would meet the Iraqi president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker before heading north to visit camps sheltering people displaced by the Mosul conflict.

The fight to retake the city has triggered a number of humanitarian concerns, with more than 350,000 people fleeing the battle since the government offensive on Mosul began in October, according to UN figures.

Many civilians remain

Officials and witnesses say that airstrikes during the operation to take the western part of the city, which started last month, have also taken a devastating toll on civilians who have remained.

The US-led coalition that has been carrying out strikes against IS says it "probably" played a role in reported civilian deaths in west Mosul.

Watch video 01:34

Battle for Mosul intensifies

The UN said earlier this month that some 600,000 civilians were still in west Mosul, with 400,000 of them trapped in the Old City, a maze of narrow lanes that is making it hard for the Iraqi forces to avoid close combat with the extremists.

Amnesty International's Donatella Rovera recently said the high civilian death toll in eastern Mosul, which was retaken by government forces in January, suggested that there, too, the coalition "failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law."

Camps have been set up around the city to provide shelter for the displaced, while others are staying in makeshift conditions with relatives, renting accommodation or living in unfinished buildings.

IS overran large swaths of territory north and west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in 2014. But Iraqi forces, with the backing of the US-led airstrikes, have since recaptured much of the area.

tj/sms (AFP, AP)

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