About 28,000 people have fled the Tikrit area as Iraqi forces battle the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in a massive offensive aimed at retaking the city, the UN said.
The involvement of Shiite militiamen in the operation, which has been dubbed an attempt to avenge the IS massacre of hundreds of mainly Shiite recruits last year, has raised fears of sectarian killings targeting Sunni Arabs.
“Military operations in and around Tikrit have precipitated displacement of an estimated 28,000 people to Samarra,” the UN said in a statement on Thursday.
“Field reports indicate that additional displacements are under way and that yet more families remain stuck at checkpoints,” it said.
The newly displaced Iraqis join what the International Organization for Migration says are 2.5 million people already forced from their homes in the country.
About 30,000 Iraqi security forces members and allied fighters launched the operation to retake Tikrit on Monday, the largest of its kind since IS — formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — overran swathes of territory in June last year.
Retaking Tikrit, the hometown of executed former president Saddam Hussein, from militants who have had more than eight months to dig in poses a major challenge for the country’s forces.
Sectarian-fueled revenge killings targeting Sunni Arabs have been a feature of past operations involving Shiite militias, raising concerns that the same might happen in Tikrit.
“We have urged all Iraqi forces to avoid and prevent the abuse to civilians of any kind of activity that violates international norms, fuels sectarian fears and promotes sectarian divides, and that includes Iran in terms of their activities,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh.
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