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Mosul residents brave Islamic State death threats to flee city

UN refugee agency cited as saying group of 900 escaped into Syria, despite threats from IS fighters that all fleeing would be killed
Boy carries white flag near Qayyarah, south of Mosul, after fleeing clashes in al-Hud village (Reuters)

A group of more than 900 people fled the city of Mosul and crossed the border into Syria, the UN refugee agency was cited as saying on Wednesday, suggesting the Islamic State (IS) group is unable to prevent mass escapes despite threats to kill all those who attempt to flee.

A UNHCR spokeswoman told the BBC the group is the largest to have successfully fled the city since the Iraqi government began its offensive to liberate Mosul from IS. There are as many as 1.5 million people still in the city, which is garrisoned by about 5,000 IS militants.

The group has repeatedly threatened death to all who attempt to flee. But the escape of such a large number suggests IS is unwilling or unable to carry out its threat.

There have been two reported attempts at rebellion in Mosul by IS members in the last week - both were reportedly crushed by mass executions.

The UNHCR told the BBC that the group were now at a refugee camp inside Syria, and they would eventually be moved back across the border to a safe location in Iraq.

The UNHCR on Monday estimated that as many as 100,000 people may escape the city in fleeing towards Syria and Turkey, and that plans were underway to shelter 90,000.

Both the Syrian army and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah have claimed the US was planning to open a path of retreat for IS from Iraq into Syria, a claim described as "ludicrous" by the US.

"Any attempt to cross the border is an attack on the sovereignty of Syria... and would be dealt with all forces available," the Syrian army said in a statement.

A senior official in the alliance fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, told Reuters the arrival of big numbers of IS fighters would present new dangers to Deir Ezzor, Palmyra, and to other areas further west.

IS would also be able to reinforce the Syrian city of Raqqa, its main Syrian stronghold.

"There is a danger that Iraq will witness a victory and Syria a crisis - a victory in Iraq will be at the expense of a new crisis in Syria," said the official, a non-Syrian.

Residents, reached by telephone by Reuters news agency, said IS was preventing people from fleeing the city and had directed some of them towards buildings likely to be targeted by air strikes.

"It's quite clear Daesh (Islamic State) has started to use civilians as human shields by allowing families to stay in buildings likely to be targeted by air strikes," said Abu Mahir, who lives near the city's university.

Like other residents contacted in the city, he refused to give his full name, but Abdul Rahman Waggaa, a member of the exiled provincial council of Nineveh of which Mosul is the capital, corroborated his account to Reuters.