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UN: Civilians trying to reach safety are 'trapped' inside Fallujah

Only 800 people have been able to escape Fallujah since the start of an Iraqi army offensive against IS. The tens of thousands who are stuck in the city face "dire conditions," according to the UN.

Despite advance notice from Iraqi forces

and the promise of secured escape routes, a mere 800 people have been able to flee the besieged city of Fallujah since May 22, reported the United Nations on Thursday.

"We are receiving distressing reports of civilians trapped inside Fallujah who are desperate to escape to safety, but can't," said Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, in the statement.

Those who managed to leave were "mostly from outlying areas," with an estimated 50,000 people who remain in the city.

"Some families report having to walk for hours under harrowing conditions to reach safety. People trapped in the city center are thought to be most at risk - unable to flee," the UN said.

Civilians in 'dire' state

According to accounts from those who successfully escaped, civilians in the inner section of the city face unsafe conditions.

"Food supplies are limited and tightly controlled. Medicines are exhausted and many families have no choice but to rely on dirty and

unsafe water sources

," Ms. Grande said.

IS militants in the city center have reportedly imposed a curfew, forbidding people to leave their homes in a supposed attempt to use them as human cover.

Civilians contacted inside Fallujah said that the multitude of bombs and booby traps set by IS in and around the city makes fleeing highly dangerous.

The UN's refugee agency said that humanitarian supply routes into Fallujah were effectively shut off by the tens of thousands of Iraqi troops surrounding the city on the first day of the operation - also preventing residents from leaving.

Various rights groups have cautioned the Iraqi government against using starvation tactics to force out the militants at the expense of civilians.

PM asks protesters to stay home

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Thursday asked protesters to postpone their weekly Friday protests so that security forces can be further used in the Fallujah assault.

Watch video 01:58

Iraqi army launches Falluja operation

"All our security forces are preoccupied with liberating Fallujah and nearby areas, and imposing pressure on them in Baghdad and other provinces to protect the demonstrations will affect this issue (the Fallujah offensive)," al-Abadi said.

For months, anti-government protesters have been demonstrating outside

Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

They have been protesting against the government's failure to approve anti-corruption reforms and to provide security.

Al-Abadi called on Iraqis to be "vigilant and cautious as they (IS militants) will try to carry out crimes and massacres against civilians."

Fallujah, which lies just 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad, has been out of government control since January and is one of the last two Iraqi cities held by IS.

The ongoing

attempt to retake Fallujah

was launched on May 22.

rs/kms (AP, AFP)

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